Texas Episcopal school argues that courts can’t intervene in a case of racial bullying

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A private Episcopal school in Texas is being sued by a former student and his parents claiming that the student was bullied because of his race. The school, which handed down one-day suspensions to the admitted bullies, is claiming immunity on this matter because it is a religious school.

The Huffington Post reports:

Maureen Beans and her son, C.R., had a horrible experience at Trinity Episcopal School in Galveston, Texas, according to the lawsuit filed in May.

C.R., who attended Trinity for sixth and seventh grade, starting in 2014, was a black student at the overwhelmingly white private school. He claims he was relentlessly bullied, sometimes in ways that appeared racially motivated.

In one incident, his three tormentors allegedly gave him pieces of origami designed to resemble hoods worn by Ku Klux Klan members.

Throughout this time, school administrators ignored the problem, even after C.R.’s family brought it to their attention, the lawsuit says. Even though the students admitted to the bullying, according to the lawsuit, they were only given one-day suspensions and required to apologize ― consequences the plaintiff deems sorely lacking.

After that, Beans took her son from Trinity Episcopal School and enrolled him elsewhere, and sued the school because of what they called racially motivated bullying.

The school wants the lawsuit dismissed because of its status as a religious institution.

This legal principle, also called the church autonomy doctrine, holds that religious institutions do not need to follow the same laws as non-religious entities, like public schools, if it conflicts with their religious doctrine.

It applies in cases where a decision from a civil judge would infringe on the internal religious organization of a group, like how a religious organization can choose to have only male or female clergy members perform specific tasks.

Trinity says it disputes the assertions made in the Beans’ lawsuit. But it is also essentially arguing that because it is a religious organization, it is allowed to maintain its own discipline system, which may or may not involve consequences for racist bullying.

The Houston Chronicle:

Attorneys Levi G. McCathern, II and Daryoush Behbood of the McCathern Law Firm in Dallas are representing the family, according to the suit.

According to the family’s legal team the boy has had a hard time adjusting to subsequent schools. By all indications he was a normal student before the bullying began.

“Prior to filing this lawsuit, we tried to resolve the matter with Trinity and David C. Dearman—the headmaster of Trinity. We gave them every opportunity to meet with us to try and resolve the case without costly litigation,” said Behbood in statement this week.

“Trinity’s leadership, however, had no interest in speaking with us despite the perpetrators of the bullying and racial discrimination admitting their actions to Mr. Dearman and the school being well aware of the ongoing problems.”

Behbood wrote that since the lawsuit went public more families have reached out to the law firm for help.

Trinity’s response states that the lawsuit asks the court to review disciplinary decisions taken by the school in response to complaints by the child’s mother. Because of the Constitution’s protections on the practice of religion, however, “the courts cannot second-guess these decisions, even in the guise of purportedly ‘secular’ causes of action arising from tort principles,” the filing states.

KPRC TV-2 published the following statement from the school:

“Trinity Episcopal School Galveston is saddened by the lawsuit that has been filed by the mother of a former 7th grade student against the school, its head, and three of her son’s former classmates.

“The school has policy that prohibits any form of bullying or discrimination. As soon as the school was informed of an issue over a year ago, it addressed it immediately, consistent with its policy. The mother withdrew her child from the school four days later.

“Trinity Episcopal School values diversity and is committed to upholding standards that reflect our mission in Christ. Because this dispute involves children, we will have no further comment on the litigation.”

The Episcopal Church teaching on racism and racial reconciliation may be found here.  A 1994 pastoral letter is here. Diocese of Texas material on racism may be found here.

Added: (from the comments) The court documents are here.

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Margaret Schultz
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Margaret Schultz

While the details are a little vague it sounds like the school did not do all it should as a Christian institution. The courts shouldn't have to get involved to make a Christian school to act with justice and compassion. The bishop should get involved.

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John Chilton
Editor

Canon 11 Episcopal Schools

http://www.epicenter.org/constitution--canons/

Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Texas

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John Chilton
Editor

I wonder if their 501c3 status undercuts their defense that they are protected from secular second guessing because they are an entity of the parish and the diocese. Also relevant?: the parish is the sole member of the corporation.

https://tesgalv.org/giving/

"Trinity Episcopal School is a separately incorporated non-profit (501 (c) (3)) organization, and gifts to our school may be considered tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law."

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Susan Russell
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Susan Russell

I read a lot of things that horrify me on a regular basis. This is totally on today’s list.

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JC Fisher
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JC Fisher

I learned of this case via a secular website---yes, they've noticed.

Here's the school's Contact Us page: https://tesgalv.org/community/contact-us/ PLEASE, for the sake of the Episcopal Church, let them know how disgusted you feel.

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Lucia Robinson
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Lucia Robinson

I've known parochial schools condone bullying of white students under the "boys will be boys" or "kids are mean" philosophies. My own philosophy is that a religious school ought to educate the heart as well as the mind.

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JC Fisher
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JC Fisher

"Because of the Constitution’s protections on the practice of religion, however, “the courts cannot second-guess these decisions, even in the guise of purportedly ‘secular’ causes of action arising from tort principles,” the filing states.

Oh the HELL it can't! This absolutely disgraceful. Are these racist-enablers TRYING to destroy the Episcopal Church????

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Bill Swartzer
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Bill Swartzer

If you allow the courts to intervene in just one of these cases, it gets to intervene in all of them. As repugnant as the situation is, the school dealt with it (whether adequately or inadequately none of us know). The school is (and must be) free from court interference in these matters.

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Les Ferguson
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Les Ferguson

Except the courts routinely address Church disputes. Property disputes; code enforcement; and the like. And bullying is not a doctrinal issue - it is a legal issue.

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Tom+Downs
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Tom+Downs

Bill Swartzer: Why? Free from building codes. Free from health codes? Free from employment laws (unless you make the claim that the custodian is a minister and what he does is ministry)? Free from workplace safety laws? Free from laws governing sexual misconduct or harassment? Well, who enforces such laws, if not the courts? The danger for the rest of the Church is the religious freedom claim on the part of the school.

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Tom Downs
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Tom Downs

"...do not need to follow the same laws as non-religious entities, like public schools, if it conflicts with their religious doctrine." A school of the Diocese under the control of an Episcopal Church. So what is the religious doctrine at play here? What doctrine of the Episcopal Church directly speaks to the school's actions? I hope we don't see this turn into another cupcake controversy. I fear it would reflect badly on the Episcopal Church. Someone needs to convince there legal team to drop that attempted defense. Argue the case on some other merits.

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Les Ferguson
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Les Ferguson

And for what it's worth bullying is in direct violation of our baptismal vows: "To strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being." (BCP 1979; p. 305)

Sorry, they need to try again and simply recognize the school failed the test in this situation.

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Paul Powers
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Paul Powers

Regardless of its legal merits, this argument is tone deaf both pastorally and PR-wise.

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John Chilton
Editor

In the school's "Defendants Plea" document (see link to court documents above), the school states

"The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is fatal to Plaintiffs' claims. The doctrine applies because Trinity is a religious school with "substantial religious activity and purpose." ... Trinity is a non-profit corporation, and the sole member of the corporation is Trinity Episcopal Church of Galveston, Texas. ... The purpose for which the corporation is organized is to "operate an Episcopal school . . . sponsored by the Episcopal Parish Church located in Galveston, Texas known as Trinity Episcopal Church."... 1/n

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John Chilton
Editor

cont. 2/n " In the accomplishment of those purposes, the School must "recognize and accede to the authority of the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Texas." ... The Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Texas provide that any educational facility located on the premises of or operated under the control, auspices or approval of a Diocese of Texas Parish " "shall be an Episcopal School of the Diocese, and no such school shall be established, maintained, or operated without the written approval and consent of the Diocese of Texas."

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Robert F Solon Jr
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Robert F Solon Jr

Here are the court documents if anyone is interested. http://publicaccess.co.galveston.tx.us/CaseDetail.aspx?CaseID=1337692

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Robert F Solon Jr
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Robert F Solon Jr

I'd be very interested in those court filings if anyone can get them.

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Ann Fontaine
Member

I don't see how they can claim religious exemption on this - they don't seem to be affiliated with The Episcopal Church despite the name.

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Paul Powers
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Paul Powers

They are a ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston.
https://tesgalv.org/community/trinity-episcopal-church/

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Cynthia Katsarelis
Member

Their website says that they are a member of NAES and that "The mission of the National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES) is to serve those who serve Episcopal schools." Does this membership make it part of the Episcopal Church? Or not?

Either way, it's pretty sad to have lawyers arguing that religious schools can condone bullying...

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