A Texas appeals court has ruled that a pastor can be sued for following biblical mandates in administering church discipline, but a civil rights defender says the United States Constitution is on the minister's side.
Four years ago Pastor Buddy Westbrook of Crossland Community Bible Church in Fort Worth was approached by member Peggy Penley, who needed counseling for marital problems. Eventually Penley left her husband to live with another man.
Pastor Westbrook then proceeded to follow the three-step conflict resolution guidelines given in the Bible in the 18th chapter of Matthew. Eventually, the minister went before the church with the matter, sending a letter to the congregation in which he removed Penley from church membership.
Westbrook subsequently found himself having to defend his actions in court. Initially, a district court ruled in the pastor's favor, but an appeals court said Penley had a right to sue her pastor. However, Hiram Sasser of Liberty Legal Institute, the firm that is defending Westbrook, contends that pastors are protected from such lawsuits under the United States Constitution.
Sasser, LLI's Director of Litigation, has filed a brief in the case with the state's highest court.
"Hopefully we'll have the Texas Supreme Court take this case and rule that pastors have a constitutional right to govern the churches as they see fit," he says, "and to deal with unrepentant sin as they deem the Bible tells them to deal with it -- and not have a secular model imposed upon them by the courts."
According to the attorney, Penley chose to sue Westbrook after he sent the Crossland Community Bible Church congregation a letter he had co-authored, disassociating Penley from membership because she had allegedly acted in a manner contrary to biblical teachings and refused to repent of her sin. The letter explained the biblical authority for disciplinary action against the former member and the disciplinary process outlined in scripture.
"The U.S. Constitution protects the right of a church to choose its members and govern itself in any manner it chooses according to doctrine and faith, without government interference," Sasser says. And, he adds, "Pastors also have a constitutional right to inform other church members of the influence of sin on church members and the steps being taken to address such sin."
However, now that an appellate court has ruled that the pastor can be sinned for disciplining a church member, the Liberty Legal spokesman is concerned that the case could set a precedent that would allow the state to interfere with churches' ability to govern themselves according to scripture.
"We have a real danger here," Sasser says, "in that secular standards are possibly being applied to internal church operations. The problem with that is that churches answer to God, not man, and churches are required to uphold the moral law, not political correctness. So what's happening is these civil courts, or secular courts, are deciding where the pastor should follow the Bible or follow a secular model of how to deal with sin - and that's totally inappropriate."
Liberty Legal Institute is a legal organization committed to defending religious freedoms and First Amendment rights. Sasser is hopeful that the Supreme Court of Texas will rule in Pastor Westbrook's favor and establish that pastors have the constitutional right to act biblically in church matters.
Liberty Legal Institute (www.libertylegal.org)