Many parents are scrambling to buy school supplies, new clothes and uniforms for their children. But, families with children attending private religious schools in Texas have a much more serious thing to worry about.
Because of a June 22 Texas Supreme Court decision, parents throughout Texas may have lost the right to sue private schools claiming a religious affiliation — even in cases in which children have been abused. It’s a case that should make parents think seriously about whether to enroll their children in private, religious institutions.
In John Doe vs. Episcopal School of Dallas, the justices of the high court refused to consider a harmful ruling issued by a lower appellate court. That ruling said that a father didn’t have the right to sue a faith-based school for any of its decisions and actions (or failures to act) under what is known as the “Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine” of the First Amendment. The court deemed the faith-based institution’s purported right to manage its “internal affairs” more important than the well-being of the child.
In other words, this case, serving as precedent, could bar Texas parents who feel a school has harmed their child from finding recourse in the civil courts system, even if there are claims of abuse or neglect.
My nonprofit organization, the Child-Friendly Faith Project, is aware of countless cases in which a court decides that 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.
Until this summer, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine has applied when church doctrine is at the heart of a dispute and must be interpreted to resolve a claim or when a seminary or divinity school is challenged by a terminated employee. But in the ESD case, the appeals court applied the doctrine so broadly as to allow ESD to ignore written contracts it had with parents and evade liability for harmful conduct — all because ESD claimed it was a faith-based institution.
In refusing to review the appellate court’s decision, the Texas Supreme Court thereby allowed 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 that they are exempt from a jury’s or judge’s review of any decision that directly impacts a student’s life. This includes cases in which those schools engage in egregious conduct, such as abusive discipline or a failure to fire a sexually abusive staff member.
This case is not over. On July 24, John Doe filed a motion for a rehearing with the Texas Supreme Court, asking it to reconsider its decision. If the Texas Supreme Court refuses, it will be sending parents a dangerous message: it’s acceptable for faith-based schools in the Lone Star State to operate virtually free of accountability.
We have no doubt that such a decision would leave students enrolled in private, faith-based schools vulnerable to abuse and neglect, and parents would be powerless to protect them.