Saying it would be unconstitutional for judges to interfere in a church’s internal affairs, the Texas Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a woman who was furious that her pastor told church elders and the congregation about her extramarital relationship.
The high court’s 9-0 ruling reversed an appeals court’s finding that Peggy Penley could sue the Rev. C.L. “Buddy” Westbrook for professional negligence because he was acting as her marital counselor and not as her pastor.
In the opinion, Justice Harriet O’Neill said it would be difficult to separate those roles and impossible for Westbrook to “adhere to the standards of one without violating the requirements of the other.” Allowing judges to wade into the dispute would violate the church’s First Amendment right to govern itself, she added.
Penley and her former husband turned to Westbrook for marriage counseling in 1998, shortly before all three left one North Texas congregation to form CrossLand Community Bible Church. Westbrook was elected pastor of the new church, which required members to follow a constitution calling for strict discipline for conduct deemed inappropriate by church leaders.
Penley and her husband separated in 2000 but attended a series of weekly counseling sessions with other church members at Westbrook’s home. Later that year, she decided to divorce her husband and told Westbrook that she’d had a sexual relationship with another man.
Although Penley told the pastor she was quitting the church, Westbrook followed the constitution and told church elders about her affair. They distributed a letter to the congregation urging them to shun her because she was seeking a divorce that was not biblically justified and had had a relationship with another man.
Penley originally sued Westbrook, the church and the church elders, accusing them of defamation, negligence and intentionally inflicting emotional distress. A trial court dismissed the case, and she appealed but later dismissed the claims against everyone but the pastor.
Kelly Shackelford, an attorney for Westbrook, called the ruling “a great victory for pastors across Texas.”
“The U.S. Constitution protects the right of a church to choose its members and govern itself in any manner it chooses according to doctrine and faith, without government interference,” added Hiram Sasser, who works with Shackelford at the Liberty Legal Institute.
Penley’s attorney, Darrell Keith, said the decision fails to protect Texas church members from malpractice by secular professional counselors who are also ministers. He said he believes the court misapplied the First Amendment in this case and mischaracterized the pastor’s roles.
He said his client will have to decide whether to ask the court to reconsider its ruling. If that is unsuccessful, they could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the Dallas Theological Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals all filed court briefs to support the pastor.
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