Commentary: Why Texas should let parents sue faith-based schools

As parents, when we enroll our children in a school, we entrust it to care for our kids and keep them safe. That’s certainly true for private K-12 schools, which can cost $15,000 to $25,000 a year. Some parents believe that religiously affiliated schools are particularly trustworthy because of their spiritual teachings.

But, of course, all schools — be they religious or secular — can leave children vulnerable to psychological harm, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Now, there is a case before the Texas Supreme Court in which the Episcopal School of Dallas (ESD) has been alleged to have caused a child emotional trauma, while the school claims that no court has the right to intervene because it is faith-based.

The case involves a lawsuit filed by John Doe, a pseudonym for the father of a minor who was 16 years old at the time of the incident. The father says the Episcopal School of Dallas caused his son emotional trauma by falsely accusing him of — and then expelling him for — violating school rules. ESD says its religious affiliation exempts it from judicial review under the First Amendment.

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW: When big news breaks, we send emails. Click here to sign up.

When the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas considered the case, it sided with ESD. Now, the case is before the Texas Supreme Court, which will soon decide whether to grant review and weigh in on the issue. Depending on how the higher court decides, the case could have far-reaching ramifications and potentially affect thousands of children who attend religiously affiliated private schools for generations to come. The Child-Friendly Faith Project, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2012, strongly opposes the Court of Appeals’ decision and filed an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court.

The lower court’s ruling is extremely troubling. If it is allowed to stand, it could potentially leave students in faith-based schools more vulnerable to maltreatment than those in secular schools, which is discriminatory. Furthermore, it would be far too easy for an institution to avoid lawsuits simply by claiming it is faith-based or religiously affiliated.

The Episcopal School of Dallas is a case in point. Despite its legal position as a faith-based school, it enrolls students who come from families of all faiths and philosophical backgrounds and has a curriculum that is largely secular. In fact, while John Doe’s child was attending ESD, none of the school’s “principles of honor, respect, and integrity” reflected a religious tenet, and its mission statement — that ESD strives to develop “the educated conscience” of each student—contains no religious or spiritual message. ESD also expressly promised to provide a “reasonable, consistent, and fair disciplinary structure” with no mention of religious doctrine.

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER: Viewpoints delivers the latest perspectives on current events.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that the Episcopal School of Dallas has been accused of disciplining a child in an arbitrary or unethical way. In 2011, a jury awarded more than $9 million for the school’s handling of a case in which a teacher sexually abused a female student. Shockingly, ESD expelled the victim. Ultimately, a jury found that the school had been “grossly negligent” for failing to protect the student.

This failure to keep children safe highlights the fact that all schoolchildren — regardless of what kind of institution they attend, whether it’s private, public, religious or secular — must be protected from harm. Therefore, all schools — including private faith-based institutions — must not be exempted from judicial review.

Heimlich is the founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project in Austin.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Editorial: Mr. President, you failed to stand up for America
Editorial: Mr. President, you failed to stand up for America

No, it wasn’t a slip of the tongue. The problem wasn’t that President Donald Trump said “would” instead of “wouldn’t” during his Monday news conference alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he weighed the U.S. intelligence agencies’ evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election...
ANALYSIS: Can we impeach Trump? 5 things to know about the process
ANALYSIS: Can we impeach Trump? 5 things to know about the process

Removing a president from office is a two-step process. The first step is impeachment. That’s when members of the House indict, or charge, an official with an impeachable offense. Impeachment does not remove the president from office. That only happens if a second step is taken and the president is convicted of the alleged crimes. Jacob Neiheisel...
Letters to the editor: July 19, 2018
Letters to the editor: July 19, 2018

Re: July 14 article, “City to hold information session about MLS stadium benefits.” Three times, I had to read over part of the article to make sure I understood it. Are you really telling me that this soccer stadium deal that our “esteemed” City Council is considering will allow them to lease all that McKalla land for a dollar...
Opinion: We may be able to get this man off death row

The horror began with a nighttime home invasion and the stabbings of a white family, and was compounded when sheriff’s deputies arrested and framed a black man for murder. That’s my view, and now after 35 years, the wheels of justice in California may finally be creaking into motion. I last wrote about the case two months ago, and there&rsquo...
Why Criner has all-white jury in UT murder case, and not a jury of his peers
Why Criner has all-white jury in UT murder case, and not a jury of his peers

  Potential jurors are sworn in before jury selection in the capital murder case of Meechaiel Criner, the transient man accused of killing University of Texas student Haruka Weiser in April 2016, in District Judge David Wahlberg’s 167th district court Monday July 9, 2018. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN...
More Stories