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Texas Supreme Court to Decide Divorced Church Member's Suit

In a case that could have First Amendment implications, the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday waded into a battle involving a Fort Worth pastor's decision to tell his church about a relationship a membe
( [email protected] ) Sep 27, 2006 01:30 PM EDT

AUSTIN (AP) - In a case that could have First Amendment implications, the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday waded into a battle involving a Fort Worth pastor's decision to tell his church about a relationship a member had outside of her dissolving marriage.

Attorneys for the pastor say he acted within church doctrine and the court should not get involved. The woman says she considered the pastor a secular counselor and sued for negligence.

Theologians are watching to see if a ruling could make it easier for church members to sue a pastor with a professional counseling license who talked to them as a religious leader.

"This is the true-blue church-state separation issue," said Kelly Shackelford, attorney for the Rev. C.L. "Buddy" Westbrook, pastor of CrossLand Community Bible Church.

Shackelford is also chief legal counsel for the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization that defends religious freedoms and First Amendment rights.

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, the Dallas Theological Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals all filed court briefs to support the pastor.

Peggy Penley and her husband went to Westbrook for counseling, and he involved them in group sessions with other church members. In 2000, she told Westbrook that she was divorcing her husband, and Westbrook recommended an attorney.

She also resigned her church membership - she was a co-founder of the church - because its bylaws set forth procedures allowing the congregation to discipline her and others for inappropriate behavior.

However, Westbrook met with church elders and later distributed a letter about Penley's decision to get a divorce. The letter said she was involved with another man, although it didn't specify the nature of their relationship.

The letter urged church members to shun Penley as part of a "tough love" approach for her to see her errors.

Penley and her husband divorced in 2001, and she married the other man. She then sued, challenging Westbrook's actions as a counselor under the Texas Licensed Professional Counselor Act.

A trial judge tossed out Penley's case after the pastor's attorneys argued she was disciplined within church rules. An appeals court disagreed and said Penley had a right to sue. That decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which must decide whether Penley's case should proceed.

The justices raised several questions in Tuesday's oral arguments that suggested they were struggling to decide if the case would drag them into church doctrine.

"We're dancing on the head of a pin," trying to separate the issues, said Justice Harriet O'Neill.

Courts have taken on other legal issues that impact church doctrine, notably in cases involving medical treatment or commercial fraud.

Shackelford said long-standing legal precedent allows court jurisdiction only in limited circumstances, such as cases of physical or sexual harm or fraud.

"Who decides church discipline? Judges or churches?" Shackelford said. "To allow [the lawsuit] to go forward is to allow the jury to punish the church for its doctrine."

Penley's attorney, Darrell Keith, said the case was not about church doctrine but Westbrook's professional responsibility as a licensed counselor.

He said Penley had already established a secular counseling relationship with Westbrook and considered all her meetings with him to be based on that relationship, not a religious one.

As Penley's professional counselor, Westbrook pressured her to divulge information he would use against her as a religious figure, Keith said.

"This is not a case that is an affront or abridgment of religious liberties," Keith said.

Penley testified before a lower court that she was "stunned" and "heartbroken" by the letter's release. She no longer lives in Texas, Keith said.

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