Texas Supreme Court: First Amendment bars clergyman’s million-dollar suit against Catholic Church Texas Supreme Court protects transparency and accountability effort by Diocese of Lubbock
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON –The Texas Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-1, rejected a million-dollar defamation lawsuit today against the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock, ensuring that religious organizations are free to speak transparently with their flocks about their clergy.
The Texas Supreme Court recognized the full scope of the First Amendment’s freedom for religious institutions to shape their own faith and missions. Religious institutions are not only free to make “internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” They are also free to make any “publications that relate to a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission.”
As the court said, a religious institution’s freedom “is based not on whether a publication goes beyond church walls but rather whether the substance and nature of the … claims implicate ecclesiastical matters, including a church’s internal affairs, governance, or administration.” It is not enough that a secular court can think of a way to make a claim sound non-religious. As the court stated in its opinion, “a civil suit that is inextricably intertwined with a church’s directive to investigate its clergy cannot proceed in the courts.” Any other conclusion would mean that religious institutions are not free to make decisions “consistent with [their] own norms and policies.”
“The Church carries its mission well beyond its four walls,” said William Haun, counsel at Becket. “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. 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.”
In 2019, the Catholic dioceses of Texas agreed to compile and release lists of clergy members credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. This was part of the Catholic Church’s broader effort to reform its governance around transparency toward clergy misconduct, better protect vulnerable community members, and restore lost trust. The list was drawn up in accordance with the Canon Law of the Catholic Church, which defines a “minor” as any person habitually lacking the use of reason. Deacon Guerrero was placed on the list after he had been permanently removed from public ministry following allegations of sexual misconduct with a woman who has a history of mental and emotional illness.
As a Catholic clergyman, Deacon Guerrero knew about Canon Law and was obliged to follow it. He sued the Diocese in 2019 claiming defamation because the woman he was accused of abusing was older than 18 years of age.
After two lower courts ruled against the Diocese, Becket represented the Diocese on appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. The Diocese’s petitions received the support of 34 members of the Texas legislature, the Texas Attorney General’s Office, prominent legal scholars, and a diverse array of religious organizations.
“Today the Texas Supreme Court said ‘Don’t mess with Texas churches,’” said Haun. “Any other decision would have amounted to punishing the Church for doing the right thing by its members.”
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at email@example.com or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.