Texas Supreme Court Won't Hear Landmark Episcopal School of Dallas Case

John Doe (A Minor) v. The Episcopal School of Dallas Raises Questions About "Ecclesiastical Abstention"

A Texas appellate court reversed a case in which a student petitioned for relief after his school, The Episcopal Church of Dallas (ESD Dallas), wrongfully expelled him. In that case, John Doe (A Minor) v. The Episcopal Church of Dallas, the court cited "ecclesiastical abstention," a doctrine that guides the court in accepting cases for review. According to ecclesiastical abstention, a secular court has no jurisdiction in deciding matters of faith, like a Baptist minister fired for dancing in public. Harvard Law Review has been critical of ESD Dallas's case and the terrible precedent set by the Court's actions.

Does ecclesiastical abstention apply to schools like The Episcopal School of Dallas, which is not owned or operated by a church?

The Episcopal School of Dallas is not a church. ESD Dallas isn't owned or operated by the Episcopal Church or even strict Episcopalians. The appellate judge still ruled that ecclesiastical abstention applies, because the school claims to be faith-based. The Child-Friendly Faith Project, which advocates in part for children abused as a religious belief, doctrine, or practice, condemned both the ESD school and the Texas Supreme Court for their legal positions.

But is The Episcopal School of Dallas really "faith-based"?

The appellate court read 12 different facts that indicated ESD Dallas's purpose and mission is religious. "The Episcopal School of Dallas," per its articles of incorporation, is operating a school "committed to the Christian gospel as interpreted by the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America." Further ESD Dallas policy or regulations -- like its student and faculty handbooks and its board of directors requirements -- all indicate the school is faith-based. Other facts, such as the School’s stated mission, board of director requirements, and student and faculty handbooks, all pointed to the faith-based nature of the school.

If the Episcopal School of Dallas is a faith-based school, does ecclesiastical abstention bar secular courts from ruling on admissions and expulsions?

The appellate court said yes, the facts of Doe v. The Episcopal of Dallas "conclusively establish that this dispute derives solely from the calculus of the school’s internal policies and management of its internal affairs, all directed at the school’s decision regarding whether [the student] should be a member of the school community."

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to hear the case.

"The Texas Supreme Court has never considered," the Does' attorneys wrote in their brief to the highest court in the state for Doe v. The Episcopal School of Dallas, "whether a private school that claims to be a religious institution may rely on ecclesiastical abstention when the claims at issue concern the school’s secular promises and warranties about the education of its students." Texas has 864 private, accredited, nonprofit schools, according to the Texas Private Schools Association. At least 60-70% of them are faith-based.