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Texas Court Affirms Faith-Based School’s Right to Manage its Discipline Decisions

Last year, a Texas appellate court affirmed a faith-based school’s right to manage its internal affairs, specifically in the context of deciding how to impose discipline for violation of school rules. The case, In re Episcopal School of Dallas, has received some press for the impact it may have on the rights of religious schools in Texas, and potentially across the country.1 Telios Law founder Theresa Lynn Sidebotham was quoted regarding this case, remarking about the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The case is currently pending mandamus review before the Texas Supreme Court, but here is a look at the case as it currently stands. 

Discipline at a Faith-Based School Turns into Litigation

The Dallas Episcopal School is a faith-based school in Texas. While not associated with the Episcopal Diocese, the school is decidedly faith-based. The issue arose when a student at the school got into some trouble. He was reportedly seen going off campus for lunch without permission, and then spotted smoking marijuana in front of a neighbor’s house. While he originally denied the allegations, a security camera caught him leaving school, and his friend implicated him in the drug use. The student passed an initial drug screen but was apparently later discovered to have used another individual’s sample; he failed the second test.

The School gave the student two choices: withdraw or be expelled. He withdrew. But then he and his parents (apparently not fans of natural and logical consequences as a parenting tool) sued the School and some administrators for a laundry list of tort and contract violations. Essentially, the family claimed the School did not give the student a second chance before threatening expulsion, but that the School originally claimed it would when students were discovered to have violated school rules. 

After months of litigation and discovery, the School filed a plea to the jurisdiction asking the trial court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, citing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is a rule that requires civil courts to stay out of conflicts that involve religious decisions or the management of a religious organization’s internal affairs. The family responded by arguing that the doctrine had no place in the case because the School wasn’t a church and the discipline did not involve a religious decision. The trial court denied the School’s motion and the School sought relief in the Court of Appeals.

Ecclesiastical Abstention Applies to Faith-Based Schools Even if Not Owned or Operated by a Church 

Deciding an issue of first impression for that court, the Dallas Fifth District Court of Appeals decided that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine also applies to faith-based schools not owned or operated by a church. The family had urged that the doctrine did not apply because the school was not a “church,” nor was it owned or operated by one. But the court disagreed with this logic, noting that there is no authority to support the proposition that the doctrine applies only to churches or church-owned institutions. Rather, the main question was whether the School was faith-based. 

Looking at the record, the School was clearly faith-based. The court recited 12 different facts that tended to show the School’s purpose and mission are religious. For one, the School’s primary purpose—as stated in its articles of incorporation—is to operate a school “committed to the Christian gospel as interpreted by the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” Other facts, such as the School’s stated mission, board of director requirements, and student and faculty handbooks, all pointed to the faith-based nature of the school. 

Ecclesiastical Abstention Bars Litigation Around Admission Decisions

Because the School had First Amendment protections, the question was next whether the dispute in this case turned solely on the School’s ability to manage its internal affairs, including its admission decisions. Again, the court answered the question in the School’s favor. The court remarked that the facts of this case “conclusively establish that this dispute derives solely from the calculus of the school’s internal policies and management of its internal affairs, all directed at the school’s decision regarding whether [the student] should be a member of the school community.”2 For these reasons, the case fit squarely within the confines of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. 

While acknowledging that the dispute here did not expressly concern religious doctrine in all respects, the court was clear that the central inquiry was whether a court could resolve the family’s claims without referring to the School’s governance of its own affairs. Because it could not, the School was entitled to relief. 

Conclusion 

The family has sought further review of this case by the Texas Supreme Court, and their petition remains pending, so it is yet to be seen if the Texas high court will step in. But in the interim, this case serves as an affirmation of religious-based schools’ rights to manage their own affairs, particularly when it comes to admission decisions.

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1  John Austin, School dispute gives Texas court something to pray over, Athens Daily Review (May 31, 2018), available at http://www.athensreview.com/news/school-dispute-gives-texas-court-something-to-pray-over/article_59b9a91c-6505-11e8-be46-bbb5c65a2253.html
2   In re Episcopal School of Dallas, Inc., No. 05-17-00493-CV (Tex. App. Oct. 11, 2017).
Featured Image: "Unnamed" by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash.
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