A priest and a lawyer crossed through a bar — in court, that is. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Texas heard a case between a Lubbock deacon who claimed his diocese defamed him by putting him on a list of credibly accused sex abusers. The Lubbock Diocese believes a ruling in the deacon’s favor would set a precedent against the freedom of churches to discipline their clergy in the manner they see fit.
The case, Diocese of Lubbock v. Guerrero, begins with a sexual incident between deacon Jesus Guerrero and an adult woman that landed him on a list of credibly accused abusers. The Diocese of Lubbock originally labeled him among “Clergy with a Credible Allegation of Sexual Abuse of a Minor,” but later corrected themselves to include “vulnerable adults” alongside children.
For being ranked among child abusers when his sexual incident took place with an adult, and because of the public nature of the diocese’s announcement, the deacon believes he was defamed and that the First Amendment does not cover the church’s actions.
“The church went outside the church for the decision-makers. If you look at the record, they brought in outside law enforcement and the church lawyer went out and hired a private lawyer to review the clergy files to make the determine of what is a credible allegation,” said Guerrero’s attorney Ryan Price, arguing that the church left the shade of the First Amendment once it stepped outside the walls of the building and into the community.
“So, my point there is that not only was the publication made outside the confines of the church, but the decision-making process involved outsiders.”
Although the diocese amended their list to show that it counted vulnerable adults as minors, Price said the “bell was already rung.”
According to William Hahn, attorney for the diocese from religious freedom advocacy group Becket, the First Amendment guards a church’s duty to inform its community.
“The First Amendment protects the freedom for religious organizations to speak about and govern their clergy in good faith, especially on matters that affect the church’s religious teachings and moral witness as the church’s handling of clergy sexual abuse certainly does,” Hahn said.
“And the church was defending its freedom to speak transparently and accountably with its members about clergy sexual abuse so as to help in the healing process with victims… That freedom has to be upheld here to help with transparency and accountability and the healing of clergy sexual abuse victims.”
Becket’s notable cases in recent memory include two suits against the governor of New York on behalf of members of the Orthodox Jewish community.
With their robes at times melting in and out of their faux-mahogany green screens in the livestreamed court, the justices grilled both sides on just how widely to measure the scope of a church’s freedom.
“What makes this one more difficult, it seems, to me, is the fact that the diocese chose to issue press releases and put the information on a public website,” Justice Jeff Boyd said.
“And I’m thinking of cases where, like in the Protestant realm, a church chooses to disfellowship somebody and gets up in the pulpit on a Sunday morning and says, ‘This person’s been disfellowshipped.’ And the courts have mostly said, ‘Well that’s a matter of church doctrine,’ and the abstention doctrine has to apply. But if a church… starts issuing press releases and spreading the word of that decision out to the general public, are there cases that say the abstention doctrine continues to apply in that context?”
In response, Beth Klusmann, an attorney from the State of Texas that joined Hahn and the diocese in an amicus curiae brief, noted that the Constitution kicks in once the church steps out.
“People who privately practice their faith don’t need much First Amendment protection,” Klusmann said.