Tuesday, November 17, 2020

West Virginia Supreme Court Exempts Religious Schools and Camps From Deceptive Practices Ban

 In State of West Virginia ex rel. Morrisey v. Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, (WV Sup. Ct., Nov. 16, 2020), the West Virginia Supreme Court held that the deceptive practices provisions of the state's Consumer Credit and Protection Act cannot be applied to educational and recreational services offered by a religious institution. It concluded that state statutory provisions protecting religious schools and institutions lead to this result.  It also held that 

the entire relationship between Church and State arising from the Attorney General’s application of the Act constitute an excessive entanglement of  Church and State...

According to the court:

[T]he Attorney General claimed that the Diocese had violated the deceptive practices provisions when it knowingly employed admitted and credibly-accused sexual abusers in its schools and camps but neither disclosed that material information to consumers nor warned them of the alleged dangers inherent to the educational and recreational services it provided. The Attorney General also claimed that the Diocese had made material misrepresentations regarding the safety of those services....

Justice Workman filed a dissenting opinion, saying in part:

The majority opinion is transparently result-oriented which explains its logical incoherence and sins of omission. The issue before the Court is one of fairness and honesty in commercial communications to the public---potential purchasers of goods and services. The fundamental question involves matters of unfair or deceptive acts or practices in advertising or selling and in advertising based on false promises. That is all. Nothing else is at issue. This case has absolutely nothing to do with the free exercise or expression of religious thought and nothing to do with regulating religious institutions in the sense of excessive State entanglement....

In conclusion, the majority opinion slams the door shut on enforcement of even the most blatant unfair or deceptive commercial conduct on the grounds that false or misleading advertising was perpetrated by a religious institution.... Ironically, religious institutions have been given an unfair marketplace advantage with respect to their commercial enterprises. 

AP reports on the decision.