The Texas Supreme Court has ruled against a Catholic deacon suing his diocese for putting him on a list of clergy who had accusations of sexual abuse leveled against them.
Jesus Guerrero, who was ordained as a deacon in 1997, sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lubbock after they refused to remove his name from a list released in 2018 of clergy who they deemed as having credible accusations of sexual abuse lodged against them.
In an 8-1 decision released Friday, the state’s highest court concluded that the Diocese of Lubbock could lawfully include Guerrero's name on the list of accused clergy.
Justice John Devine delivered the majority opinion, writing that having a secular court interfere with the Diocese’s list would be “a challenge to the Diocese’s underlying investigation into its own clergy and application of Canon Law.”
“The First Amendment prohibits government—and courts—from interfering with a believer’s ability to observe his faith and from interfering with a church’s management of its internal affairs,” wrote Devine.
“Churches have a fundamental right under the First Amendment to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church governance as well as those of faith and doctrine.”
Justice Jeff Boyd authored a dissent to the opinion, arguing that “the First Amendment does not prohibit courts from hearing a defamation claim against a religious organization when the claim involves statements made to the general public and courts can resolve the claim on strictly secular grounds.”
“By choosing to broadcast the statements beyond the church and involve the general public in the church’s disciplinary procedures, the Diocese altered the nature of the constitutional concerns,” wrote Boyd.
“Because Guerrero’s defamation claim is based on statements the Lubbock Diocese published beyond the church to the general public, and because courts can resolve that claim based on neutral principles without becoming entangled in ecclesiastical issues, I agree with all the federal and state courts around the country, which have consistently held that the First Amendment does not bar the courts from hearing such a claim.”
William Haun, any attorney for Becket, a religious liberty law firm that helped represent the Diocese, released a statement on Friday celebrating the decision.
“We are happy that the court recognized that fundamental truth today, and that the First Amendment does not allow government bodies—including courts—to interfere with internal religious decisions,” stated Haun.
“Religious organizations do not surrender their freedom to govern themselves just because they speak in public on matters affecting their faith, clergy, and moral witness.”