Texas judges have long avoided legal fights over religious doctrine and practice, reasoning that their secular authority should rarely extend into matters of worship.
But the father of a boy expelled from the exclusive Episcopal School of Dallas believes a state appeals court got it wrong when it dismissed his lawsuit against the school, ruling that enrollment and disciplinary decisions were related to its religious practice and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
Unless that broad ruling is reversed, the father warned in an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, private schools and other religiously affiliated organizations will be handed a get-out-of-legal-trouble exemption they do not deserve.
“These schools should not be permitted to exploit the Free Exercise Clause as a means to evade liability,” said a legal brief from the father, identified as John Doe Sr. because he sued on behalf of his son, a minor at the time.
Doe’s teenage son was expelled from the college preparatory school — where annual tuition ranges from $23,540 for kindergarten to almost $30,000 for high school — for violating drug and alcohol policies during his junior year in 2014.
Doe responded by suing the school for breach of contract, alleging that the charges against his son — leaving campus to smoke marijuana with another student — were trumped up.
In October, however, the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals tossed out the lawsuit, ruling that the courts had no authority to scrutinize the faith-based school’s operations because the First Amendment protected its free exercise of religion.
“Resolving those claims would require a court to pass judgment on the school’s internal affairs and governance — matters exclusively within the province of an ecclesiastical institution,” the appeals court ruled.
Doe’s lawyers argue that the ruling significantly expanded what the courts consider to be religious practice, “setting a dangerous precedent that encourages private schools to claim the sanctuary of religion to escape their express promises to parents, students and vendors alike.”
“The court of appeals’ opinion can be read to give private schools, under the guise of religion, free rein to engage in abusive discipline of students,” Doe’s lawyers told the Supreme Court.
The state’s highest civil court has yet to act on Doe’s appeal. It has two basic options: accept the case and set oral arguments or reject it and let the lower-court opinion stand.
Is the school religious?
According to Doe’s lawyers, the 5th Court of Appeals made two critical errors when it dismissed Doe’s lawsuit based on the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” a legal standard that prevents courts from resolving religious controversies or intruding on internal religious matters.
First, the court considered the school to be a religious institution despite church ties that are “nominal at best,” they said, arguing that the school prides itself on offering a secular education, is not affiliated with a particular church and is not owned, funded or managed by the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.
In addition, only half of the school’s board members are Episcopalian and more than 85 percent of students do not belong to the faith, the lawyers told the Supreme Court.
Second, the school’s code of conduct and disciplinary policy that resulted in the student’s expulsion were not based on religious policies, practice or doctrine that need protection from court interference, the lawyers argued.
“The code of conduct is premised on ‘Principles of Honor, Respect and Integrity,’ not one of which reflects a particular religious tenet,” they said.
Doe’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, arguing that it misapplied the legal doctrine because Doe sued over the school’s secular actions, not religious practice.
“These allegations and the evidence show that ESD is not a faith-based institution entitled to the doctrine’s protection and that, even if it is, the doctrine does not apply because the claims do not require the resolution of a religious controversy,” Doe’s appeal said.
The school fights back
Lawyers for the school urged the court to reject Doe’s appeal, arguing that the lower court did not misuse the religious protection doctrine.
“The Episcopal School is not ‘unaffiliated’ with any religion; it is a faith-based school founded on and operated in accordance with the Episcopal faith, including daily chapel by ordained Episcopal ministers assigned by the Dallas Diocese using the Book of Common Prayer,” they told the Supreme Court. “The Episcopal faith is the reason for, and at the core of, the school’s mission.”
The school’s lawyers also rejected Doe’s claim that the dispute over his son’s expulsion is secular in nature.
“The Episcopal School has a constitutionally protected right to determine who may remain a member of its religious community, how to discipline its members, and how to interpret and apply its own governing policies,” they wrote.
The school urged the court to dismiss Doe’s arguments that the lower-court ruling was a slippery slope that will allow private religious schools and faith-based organizations to dodge lawsuits over mistreatment. Similar arguments also were made by the Child-Friendly Faith Project, a nonprofit that combats religion-based child abuse and neglect, and others in friend of the court briefs.
Lawyers for the school said the lower-court ruling does not create a broad immunity from lawsuits because “it relates only to internal membership, discipline and policy decisions of faith-based institutions.”
The Supreme Court has no deadline on deciding whether to accept or reject Doe’s appeal.