CHURCH INTERNAL INVESTIGATION IMMUNITY

It took the Texas courts substantial effort to work through to find the edges between Texas tort law and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The legal culture of Texas, that there should be a remedy for every wrong and that everyone should have access to the Texas courts, is strongly engrained.  Fitting the edges of that absolute to the edges of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine was difficult both legally and culturally.  Other states have had similar angst.

In July 2021, we reported on the seemingly terminal disposition of the issue by the Texas Supreme Court in In Re Diocese of Lubbock (II), 624 SW3d 506 (Tex. 2021), cert. denied, 142 S. Ct. 434 (2021).  The Texas Supreme Court invoked the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and ordered the case dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.  Essentially, the rule that evolved was “[b]ecause courts are prohibited from risking judicial entanglement with ecclesiastical matters, if the substance and nature of the plaintiff’s claims are inextricably intertwined with matters of doctrine or church governance, then the case must be dismissed.” (quoting the case reported on in this article, at 11).

In Heras v Diocese of Corpus Christi, Slip Op. (Tex. App. 13th, Corpus Christi 2022), the dismissal on jurisdictional grounds of the Plaintiffs’ defamation tort action was held in abeyance on appeal until the Texas Supreme Court ruled as noted in July and summarized above.  The appeal was reactivated and the trial court’s dismissal was affirmed.  The appellate court began their analysis with a review of the holdings in Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v Morrissey-Berru, 140 S.Ct. 2049 (2020) and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  The appellate court held “[h]ere, appellants impermissibly seek to impose liability on appellees for compliance with an internal church instruction of openness and transparency.”  Compliance with the “internal church instruction” by investigation and public disclosure was not within the jurisdiction of the Texas courts to address.

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