September 2007 Church & State | AU Bulletin

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to entertain a parishioner’s lawsuit against her pastor for revealing her extramarital affair.

In late June, the state’s top court ruled in Westbrook v. Penley that it did not have jurisdiction to decide whether Pastor C.L. “Buddy” Westbrook of CrossLand Community Bible Church in Fort Worth should be found liable for revealing the extramarital sexual relationship, which was told to Westbrook in a private meeting. Peggy Lee Penley, a former congregant of CrossLand, sued Westbrook claiming that he had learned of her situation in a secular counseling session and that he broke his duty of confidentiality.

After Westbrook, who is also a licensed professional counselor, learned of Penley’s relationship, he published a letter to the church membership in fall 2000 explaining that Penley intended to divorce her husband. He said there was no biblical basis and that she had engaged in a “biblically inappropriate” relationship with another man. Noting that she refused to repent, Westbrook also told the congregation that it should “break fellowship” with Penley in an effort to force her repentance.

Penley sued the pastor claiming he had committed numerous civil offenses, such as breach of fiduciary duty and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Westbrook urged the Texas courts to dismiss Penley’s lawsuit, arguing that the state did not have jurisdiction over an “ecclesiastical dispute.”

Citing federal and state court precedent, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously agreed with Westbrook. The autonomy of houses of worship, wrote Justice Harriet O’Neill, has “long been afforded broad constitutional protection.”

O’Neill concluded that a “church’s decision to discipline members for conduct considered outside the church’s moral code is an inherently religious function with which civil courts should not generally interfere.”

The justice continued, “Subjecting CrossLand’s pastor to tort liability for engaging in the disciplinary process that the church requires would clearly have a ‘chilling effect’ on churches’ ability to discipline members, and deprive churches of their right to construe and administer church law.”