The Texas Supreme Court made a decision last week that could adversely affect the lives of thousands of children. In John Doe vs. Episcopal School of Dallas, the justices refused to consider a harmful ruling issued by an appellate court. The ruling allows a faith-based school to avoid civil liability for harming a child in its care. Texas parents may have lost their right to sue a faith-based school, even if there are claims of abuse or neglect.

The case involves a child who was expelled from the Episcopal School of Dallas for allegedly smoking marijuana off campus. Since the expulsion violated the contract between the school and parents, the father sued for breach, fraud and other claims. The school claimed that under the First Amendment it was immune from being sued. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the father had no right to take the school to court. Its reasoning came down to one simple truism: the school claimed to be a “faith-based” institution.

The appeals court relied on the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” of the First Amendment, which has given churches and schools that provide a religious education latitude in how they handle “internal affairs,” such as termination of membership or employees. But in this case, the appeals court applied the doctrine so broadly as to determine the school could ignore the written contracts it had with parents and avoid liability for its harmful conduct.

Furthermore, in circumventing the trial court and taking the case to the appeals court, the school prevented key facts from coming to light. For example, the appellate court was not presented evidence that a drug test had exonerated the student, that the expulsion was unfairly targeting the student and that the student was emotionally traumatized by the school’s arbitrary action.

On June 22, the Texas Supreme Court refused to review the case, thereby allowing the lower court’s draconian decision to stand. The net result is that Texas private schools that purport to have a religious affiliation can now cite this ruling and claim they are exempt from a jury’s or judge’s review of any decision relating to student life. All such decisions could be considered to be part of such schools’ “internal affairs” — even when those schools engage in egregious conduct, such as abusive discipline or a failure to fire a sexually abusive staff member.

The Child-Friendly Faith Project is aware of countless cases in which a court decides the First Amendment rights of a religious organization supersede the rights of children, but this is the most egregious example we’ve encountered in recent years.

As fall approaches, this decision should make parents across Texas think seriously about whether to enroll their children in private, religious institutions. The Texas courts have sent a dangerous message: that it’s acceptable for faith-based schools in the Lone Star State to operate virtually free of accountability. We have no doubt this decision will leave students extremely vulnerable and parents helpless to protect their children if they are harmed while under the care of those schools.

Janet Heimlich is founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project and the author of ‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment.’

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(10) comments

Carlos Ponce

"Since the expulsion violated the contract between the school and parents, the father sued for breach, fraud and other claims..."
Terms of the "contract" are found in the student handbook signed by the student and his parents.
"Dishonesty, refusal to consent to a search, and drug use and possession violate school policy. Furthermore, the school's handbook provides that refusal to allow an interior vehicle search 'will be cause for suspension, termination of campus driving and parking privileges, and potential reconsideration of student's enrollment at [the school].'
The handbook also provides for punishing certain infractions, including dishonesty and drug possession. Moreover, parents and students acknowledge in writing that the school may impose disciplinary consequences, including termination of enrollment, for conduct the school deems unsatisfactory.
Additionally, the school's enrollment and tuition agreement provides that:
The enrollment of Student is entirely at ESD's discretion and the school reserves the right to dismiss Student or to discontinue further enrollment at any time for conduct ․ whether on or off school property, which it deems ․ unsatisfactory.
The agreement further provides that the school 'may terminate Student's enrollment for any reason,' and 'students may be disciplined including but not limited to suspension and expulsion.'
The school sent upper school parents, including John Doe, a letter stating among other things “that in most cases, students should be given a chance to redeem themselves” and that “we are not a zero tolerance school.” (Emphasis added)."
"Doe was a student during the 2014-2015 school year. One day, he violated school policy by leaving campus for lunch without permission. A neighbor reported to the school that two students (one of whom was later proved to be Doe) were parked in front of her house smoking marijuana, and she called the police.
Doe initially denied leaving campus, but a security camera showed otherwise.
Doe then admitted leaving but denied smoking marijuana. Doe's companion, however, admitted smoking marijuana and said that Doe participated.
Doe also refused a search of his vehicle.
Although Doe passed an initial urine drug test, the school later learned that he used another student's specimen for the test. Doe failed a second drug test.
The school subsequently asked Doe to withdraw from school in lieu of being expelled. Doe withdrew."
Easy to see why the Texas Supreme Court tossed the case outl - the student violated the school's conduct code found in the student handbook irregardless of the school's religious status. Case closed.
If you don't like the prep school rules don't enroll there. John Doe Jr. violated school rules which resulted in possible expulsion. He withdrew from the school. Janet Heimlich writes "the school could ignore the written contracts it had with parents and avoid liability for its harmful conduct". The terms of the contract are found in the student handbook. And you believe expulsion for violating clearly written rules are "harmful conduct"? The kid violated the rules, let him suffer the consequences.

JD Arnold

Thank you for this research Carlos It now makes sense.

Keith Gray

Janet left all that information out of her article... too bad, because the hard copy readers will probably never know the whole story. Thanks Carlos for telling the rest of the story.

George Croix

That was probably not accidentally left out, Keith....

Diane Turski

Another reason to attend and support public schools!

Keith Gray

Diane, private and religious schools are fine and not every child functions well in public schools. We should support schools who follow our beliefs in how to educate our children. I do support more public control in our public schools and have issues with unfunded state mandates. But my "gripe" with this article is the author chose to only tell part of the information. If you can't sell your argument on the entire facts... then you shouldn't be in the argument.

Carlos Ponce

Diane, now "John Doe" attends those public schools or another prep school that will take him. But the rules in the handbook are similar in public schools to that in the Episcopalian school. If he pulls the same stunts in a public school John Doe will be expelled.

Paul Hyatt

The left never allows facts to get in the way of their story. Dishonestly from the left is all that they know other than their hatred for all things good.... Doing drugs is against the rules, but according the progressive left rules are made to be broken by them..

Carlos Ponce

Parents Guardians, don't make this mistake. At the beginning of the next school year don't just sign the parent signature page and return it. Before doing so GO OVER THE HANDBOOK WITH YOUR CHILD.
TCISD is similar to most:
"We understand that students will be held accountable for their behavior and will be subject to the disciplinary consequences outlined in the Code"
Print name of student:
Signature of student:
Print name of parent:
Signature of parent:

Gary Scoggin

The controversy is not whether or not the kid deserved to be expelled (Looks as if he did.) but whether or not a parochial school can be sued in these maters. Two very different issues. Without looking deeper into it, I don’t have an opinion on this second, more important question.

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