Texas Supreme Court Reviewing Decision that Exempts Some Private Schools from Claims Involving Harm to Children

Texas Supreme Court Reviewing Decision that Exempts Some Private Schools from Claims Involving Harm to Children

Texas Schools Claiming Religious Affiliation Would Not be Subject to Judicial Review of Child Discipline Complaints, If Lower Court’s Decision Upheld

AUSTIN, TX – The Child-Friendly Faith Project (CFFP), an Austin-based 501(c)(3) public charity that seeks to end child abuse and neglect by religious groups, is launching an awareness campaign surrounding a significant case pending in the Texas Supreme Court. The Court has been asked to review a decision from the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas (“Court of Appeals”) that could have far-reaching ramifications. The Court of Appeals held that private religious schools are immune from judicial review of complaints about child discipline because such discipline concerns the schools’ “internal affairs.” If the Texas Supreme Court allows the Court of Appeals’ opinion to stand, that decision would leave children throughout the state vulnerable to abuse and neglect with no hope of help from Texas courts, because parents would not be legally allowed to sue a private school claiming a religious affiliation.

The Court of Appeals issued the decision pending in the Supreme Court. The case involves a lawsuit filed by John Doe, a pseudonym for the father of a minor who was 16 years old at the time of the incident. Doe claims the Episcopal School of Dallas (ESD) caused significant trauma to his son through a series of abusive behaviors that culminated in his son’s expulsion. ESD successfully claimed it was immune from suit, arguing that its religious affiliation exempted the school from judicial review under the First Amendment. Doe alleges that the expulsion lacked merit, was based on ESD’s attempt to deflect from an embarrassing incident involving the Head of the School, and had nothing to do with religious tenets.

Even though Episcopal School of Dallas’ contract with John Doe set forth a non-religious code of conduct and disciplinary process, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of ESD, which claimed that, as a private school with a religious affiliation, its “internal affairs” do not fall under the jurisdiction of judicial review. In his petition to the Texas Supreme Court, John Doe argues that letting the Court of Appeals’ decision to stand would allow private religious schools throughout the state to claim the sanctuary of religion to avoid serving the needs of its youth and could even perpetuate abuse through excessive physical punishment, emotional distress, or other forms of discipline, free from any judicial review.

“Courts around the country wrestle with the religious liberty issue, but most recognize that there are secular aspects to educational instruction,” said Craig Enoch of Enoch Kever PLLC, appellate counsel for Doe and a former Associate Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.  “In this case, ESD expressly contracted that its education and disciplinary rules are secular and not religious in nature. This case presents a good vehicle for the Supreme Court of Texas to provide guidance in how this tension is resolved.”

“The lower court’s ruling in this case is extremely troubling,” said Janet Heimlich, founder of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, which filed an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court. “Texas has long recognized the importance of protecting children from harm by those charged with their care and education. But the case currently before the Texas Supreme Court could potentially leave students in faith-based schools more vulnerable than those in secular schools, which is discriminatory. Furthermore, all an institution would have to do to have its disciplinary practices be immune from judicial review is claim a religious affiliation.” Heimlich added, “For this reason, we believe that exempting faith-based institutions from any judicial review or intervention would only exacerbate mistreatment of countless Texas schoolchildren for generations to come.”

Larry Friedman of Friedman & Feiger, LLP, trial counsel for John Doe, said there must be judicial recourse to protect students in religious schools from bias, prejudice, and discrimination in the classroom, as well as physical abuse, sexual harassment, and the arbitrary application of codes of conduct and disciplinary rules. “Decisions made by faculty, staff and administrators—often without due process or any investigation—can cause permanent harm to students’ academic records and spoil their chances of admission into a good college or graduate school. Parents must have access to the courts to counter the lack of due process for students in religious schools and have legal recourse to proactively resolve student problems before abusive acts occur,“ said Friedman.

This is not the first time that ESD has been accused of egregious discipline of a child. In 2011, a jury awarded more than $9 million for ESD’s handling of a case in which a teacher sexually abused a female student and the student was expelled. What’s more, despite promises to do so, ESD failed to make any substantive changes to protect the children in its care, according to Doe’s lawsuit.

(Here’s a link for more info on the 2011 case involving ESD & the female student: https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2011/october/episcopal-school-of-dallas-sex-scandal/)


About the Child-Friendly Faith Project (CFFP)

The Child-Friendly Faith Project is a national, nonprofit 501(c)(3) public charity that seeks to end religious child maltreatment by raising awareness of this issue through educational programs that benefit the general public, survivors, professionals, and faith communities. 

The CFFP is considered to be one of the country’s leading authorities on child abuse and neglect that is enabled by religious belief. The organization is neither faith-based nor anti-religion and supports the First Amendment right of all religious organizations and their members to practice their faith.

The CFFP researches and tracks cases of religious child maltreatment throughout the US, as well as internationally. Sadly, many children are mistreated in faith-based organizations and institutions, whether they are state-run or privately held.  Our concern is that in faith-based institutions, adults, often with good intentions, harm children as a result of adhering to certain religious or cultural practices. Meanwhile, there can be insufficient oversight and a lack of accountability.

Such maltreatment can have serious long-term effects and even be fatal. As an example, the CFFP recently discovered that many men who had grown up at the faith-based Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch outside Amarillo, Texas, suffered ongoing and severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse over a period of approximately forty years. The CFFP is hearing from survivors who lived at Boys Ranch as far back as the 1960s and as recently as 2000.

On December 20, 2017, after stories describing the abuses had been published and broadcast by local, state, national and international news organizations, the CEO of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch publicly acknowledged, and apologized for, what the children had suffered. Currently, the CFFP is working with the institution to help meet the daily needs of alumni survivors.  A closed Facebook group for these survivors currently has 65 members.

For more information visit childfriendlyfaith.org or email info@childfriendlyfaith.org