Infallible, Untouchable: Ministerial Immunity in Washington Law

 In Court Decisions

In 2012, the Washington State Supreme Court issued an alarming decision in Erdman v. Chapel Hill Presbyterian Church, 175 Wn.2d 659, 286 P.3d 357 (2012).  Relying on a recent decision by the United States Supreme Court, Hosana-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012), a plurality of the Erdman court held that negligent retention and supervision claims against religious bodies are categorically barred by the First Amendment “ministerial exception” doctrine:  “A civil court is not entitled to interfere with or intervene in a church’s selection and supervision of its ministers, here Chapel Hill’s retention and supervision of [its pastor], when civil claims of negligent retention and supervision are asserted.”  Erdman, 175 Wn.2d at 677-679.

But what are the consequences of the Erdman plurality’s line of reasoning?  Consider the case of S.H.C. v. Lu, 113 Wn. App. 511, 54 P.3d 174 (2002).  In S.H.C., a “Grandmaster Lu” founded the “True Buddha School,” which recognized Grandmaster Lu as a “living Buddha.”  S.H.C., 113 Wn. App. at 511.  Under the School’s tenets, Grandmaster Lu was essentially considered infallible and that any perceived faults in Grandmaster Lu’s behavior were only a result of a follower’s unenlightened, “deluded” state of mind.  Id. at 522.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Grandmaster Lu used his position of authority to convince a follower for three years that, unless she had sex with him on multiple occasions, she would die.  Id. at 515-516.  After the follower did not die, and she observed Grandmaster Lu victimizing other female followers in similar ways, she sued the School for negligent retention and supervision of Grandmaster Lu.  Id. at 515.  However, the Court of Appeals upheld the summary judgment dismissal of the follower’s claims against the School based on the First Amendment, reasoning that consideration of those claims would necessarily entangle the court in interpreting and approving or disapproving of religious doctrine.  In other words, because the School believed Grandmaster Lu was infallible and let him victimize women as he pleased, the School itself was immune from civil liability.

In a fantastic dissent in Erdman showcasing why he is dearly missed, the late Justice Tom Chambers pointed out that the issue of the ministerial exception’s application to Chapel Hill was not even properly before the Court and questioned why the Erdman plurality was going to such great lengths to inject the issue into the case.  Id. at 687-688 (Chambers, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).  Setting that concern aside, Justice Chambers then observed that “it is a far cry from saying that courts have no business interfering with a church’s choice of ministers to holding that a church is effectively immune from the consequences of its choices.”  Id. at 688.  Justice Chambers demonstrated that many, many courts around the country, at both the state and federal level, have found negligent supervision and retention claims to be harmonious with and permissible under the First Amendment.  Id. at 690-692.

Certainly, it is important for courts to protect all the rights enshrined in the federal Constitution, including the First Amendment’s protection against undue government encroachment on religious establishments and practices.  But is total immunity from negligent retention and supervision claims for religious bodies the answer?  Is it the only answer?  Is it a just answer for everyone in society?  The Erdman plurality apparently believes so.  Justice Chambers didn’t.  What do you think?

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