Religious schools have always had the right to decide whether students should have to keep a moral code as a condition of enrollment. A recent case out of Texas, In re St. Thomas High School, solidifies this right. In essence, the decision to expel a student from a religious school for violating a religious requirement in the student handbook is a lot like the decision of a church to excommunicate a member. And under long-established precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, this kind of decision is off-limits from review by civil courts.
A Catholic high school in Texas recently was sued after it expelled one of its students. The student had a conflict with a particular teacher about the student’s test grades in the class. After discussions with the teacher and other faculty failed to resolve the issue to the student and his parents’ satisfaction, the situation escalated.
The parents sent a four-page letter to administration at the School, claiming that the teachers involved had engaged in intimidating and harassing the student. In particular, the parents claimed that one of the teachers had engaged their child in a “sexually demeaning discussion,” and in a “sexually harassing fashion.” Apparently this was because the teacher explained that he had been unable to call the parents on a particular night because it was his wedding anniversary.
The School promptly investigated the parents’ allegations and concluded they were patently unfounded, because they were based on a comment about the teacher’s wedding anniversary (which no one but the parents felt was either sexually demeaning or sexually harassing). Under the School’s Parent/Student Handbook, the school can expel a student when interference by that student’s parent makes it impractical for the student to continue.
Ultimately, the student was expelled and his tuition refunded. The parents and the student sued the School for breach of contract.
The School filed a plea to the jurisdiction (a special kind of pleading in Texas), claiming that the decision to expel the student was barred by ecclesiastical abstention. This doctrine says that civil courts should not even consider cases involving a church’s doctrinal or internal decision-making.
The Court ultimately agreed with the School and dismissed the case.
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied, even though the School was not a “church.”
The parents and student first argued that ecclesiastical abstention did not apply because the School was not technically a “church.” Rejecting this argument, the Court pointed out that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies not because the organization is a church per se, but because of its religious character. Indeed, Texas courts specifically have a long history of applying ecclesiastical abstention to religious schools’ decisions.
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied, even though the dispute was not over “religious” doctrine.
The parents and the student also tried to argue that the defense should not be available if the dispute did not involve the School’s expulsion of the student on religious grounds. Because the decision was simply a matter of the Parent/Student Handbook provision, an arguably non-doctrinal issue, they argued it could be decided by the Court.
The Court rejected this argument as well, noting that the doctrine is not so narrow: “Government action may burden the free exercise of religion not only by interfering with an individual’s observance or practice of a particular faith, but also by encroaching on a religious entity’s ability to manage its internal affairs.”
In re St. Thomas High School provides strong support for the ability of religious schools to require students to abide by moral codes of conduct in accordance with religious doctrine and to impose consequences when those codes are violated. While there is no guarantee that a disgruntled student or family won’t file suit, ecclesiastical abstention provides some assurance that the suit will not go far.
Define the religious character of your school and principles of discipline.
The case also demonstrates the importance of being clear about the religious character of a school. While the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not limited to churches, whether it can be successfully invoked depends on whether the organization has a pervasive religious character. Solidifying the religious nature of the school is crucial and should be reflected in policies, handbooks, and daily student life.
This includes not only the fact that the school is religious, but also its religious beliefs and practices. Other principles can also be useful in the Handbook, such as the statement in this case that parents could not unduly interfere with the operation of the school. Finally, it is helpful to have a statement that the Board is the final arbiter of the religious principles in the Handbook, and have the parents agree to that.
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