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.