Friday, May 13, 2016

Student's Complaint Over Expulsion From Catholic High School Dismissed Under Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

In In re St. Thomas High School, (TX App., May 1, 2016), a Texas state appellate court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine requires dismissal of a breach of contract lawsuit against a Catholic high school brought by a 16-year old student who was expelled and by his parents. The expulsion came after the parents sent the school a letter about the handling of a grade dispute.  The letter complained that the teacher involved had not called the parents as they had requested.  It alleged that when the teacher told the student the reason for failing to call-- he was too busy preparing for a romantic night with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary-- that this amounted to engaging in a discussion with the student "in a sexually harassing fashion."

The school concluded that the false accusations of sexual harassment against the teacher, made it impossible for other teachers to teach the student without fear of similar charges. The court said in part:
we conclude that St. Thomas’s status as a Catholic high school does not place it outside the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine’s reach. No less than a Catholic church, St. Thomas is a religious institution enjoying First Amendment protection for the free exercise of religion....
This record belies any contention that spiritual standards and religious doctrine play no role in the parties’ dispute. Plaintiffs expressly relied on the Catholic nature of a St. Thomas education to justify their demands....  In addition ... this record also demonstrates impermissible interference with St. Thomas’s management of its internal affairs and encroachment upon its internal governance.