RELIGIOUS SCHOOL LAWSUITS

It seems accepted that churches are shielded by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and most cases against them will simply be dismissed.  The outer edge of the doctrine is still uncertain at times.  The para-church organization must be proven to be religious in purpose and operation to be shielded by the Doctrine.

In the opinion styled In Re Episcopal the Episcopal School of Dallas, Inc., Slip Op. (Tex. App. 5th, 2017), the Plaintiff was a student.  The Plaintiff allegedly left campus during lunch without permission, parked in front of a residence and smoked Marijuana, denied it even though the other student involved confessed, refused to allow a search of his car, substituted another student’s sample for his urine for a drug test, and failed a drug test once the right urine was tested.  The student was dismissed from the school.  The trial court refused to dismiss the case.  The Plaintiff argued to the trial court that the school was not owned or operated by a church and that the dispute was governed by the admissions contract between the school and the student thus making the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine inapplicable.  The Court of Appeals, however, examined the school’s articles of incorporation, composition of its governing board, worship service schedule, faculty, and determined there was “only one reasonable conclusion.”

The Court of Appeals held that the school was a “religious school” or a “faith based institution.”  The school had on the faculty Episcopal priests that led the student body in daily worship.  The Bishop of the Diocese sometimes officiated.  There was mandatory religious instruction.  The student’s claims derived “solely from the calculus of the school’s internal policies and management of its internal affairs.”  The school’s lack of a formal affiliation with a church or denomination did not make inapplicable the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The “secular contract approach” urged by the student “did not apply when the claimed breach of contract arises from an enrollment agreement at a faith based institution.”  That the dispute was not in all respects about religious doctrine was not the test.  Enough of the dispute was entangled in religious considerations to require application of the Doctrine.

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