In re Episcopal School of Dallas, Inc. (Tex. App., 2017), No. 05-17-00493-CV (5th District, October 11, 2017).
The Texas Court of Appeals, Fifth District of Texas at Dallas, has held that the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, which deprives civil courts of jurisdiction to decide religious matters, applies not only to schools owned or operated by churches but to independent faith based schools.
In this case, parents sued a standalone Episcopal preparatory school that requested their son withdraw because of alleged substance use and dishonest conduct. The school and its officials sought mandamus review, asserting the Texas courts lack subject matter jurisdiction because of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The appellate court found mandamus review proper where appeal would not provide an adequate remedy, noting this is often ttrue where jurisdiction is raised on religious liberty grounds.
The “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine holds that civil courts may not interfere with church administration. Even if the issue is not directly related to a religious precept, civil courts cannot intervene where the core issue concerns religious entities’ self-governance. Government interference with that self-governance would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits state encroachment on the exercise of religion. This prohibition encompasses intrusion of the judiciary into church governance, including management of internal affairs, theology, discipline,and adherence to standards.
The court noted that it is recognized that inequities may result from ecclesiastical abstention, as wrongs without redress may occur. However, the free exercise principles which compel judicial abstention are of such primacy that some unfairness must be tolerated.
Civil courts may intervene where a religious entity participates as any other entity in civic affairs, but the Texas Court of Appeals found that the Episcopal School of Dallas’ discipline here was in accord with its foundation on religious principles. Those principles were reflected in the school’s governing documents and requirements for student conduct in accordance with Episcopal traditions. This administrative grounding in Episcopal principles — applicable to school officials and students — deprived the court of jurisdiction to decide the case.
It is not necessary that an entity have religion as its primary purpose nor need the entity be owned or wholly authorized or operated by a church, the court explained. The presence of lay teachers and religious diversity in the student body do not detract from a determination that ecclesiastical abstention is required. Were the court to engage in analysis of whether the school is “Episcopal enough” it would be engaging in the very judicial involvement that the First Amendment forbids.
In the absence of jurisdiction, the court conditionally granted mandamus and directed the trial court to conform itself to the appellate court’s determination to avoid issuance of the writ.
Blogger’s Observation: This ruling may provide some comfort to schools and parents who believe that a private religious school’s capacity to discipline children offers an alternative to public schools, which are perceived (rightly or wrongly) to lack either the capacity or will to maintain sufficient order to support learning. At the same time, this ruling may be no comfort to parents and students who fear that a church’s free rein in administration may mean the “inequities” the court recognized will fall on their heads.