A teenage student and his family have sued a religious private school in Texas after the teen allegedly experienced bullying of a racist nature. The student claims the school did next to nothing to stop the bullying. But the school says its religious doctrine makes it immune from legal repercussions.
Legal experts told HuffPost the school’s argument is highly unusual in this context.
The school’s counsel filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on these grounds in August. A judge is expected to decide whether to move forward with the lawsuit later this month, per public documents obtained by HuffPost.
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.
Days after the school doled out the punishment, Beans decided to pull her son from Trinity and enroll him elsewhere.
Now, in a move that’s raised eyebrows among lawyers and legal experts, the school is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed by invoking the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
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.
Experts told HuffPost they are surprised a religious institution would make this argument with regard to racist bullying. Some say this is a step too far.
Robert Tuttle, professor of law and religion at George Washington University, said if the law were applied this way, courts would not have been able to intervene, for example, in cases where sexual abuse was reported at Catholic churches.
“There is very little reason to think that religious institutions should be immune from the state to the degree that they claim,” Tuttle said.
But Trinity Episcopal School is attempting to claim that immunity.
“As a religious institution, Trinity has a constitutionally-protected freedom to make decisions regarding the discipline of its students without judicial interference,” the court document states in the school’s motion to dismiss. “The courts cannot second guess those decisions, even in the guise of purportedly ‘secular’ causes of action.”
Lawyers for C.R. and his family reject the school’s argument.
The family is suing the school and its former head for negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, saying the school failed to protect C.R. The parents of the three alleged bullies are also defendants in the suit.
The bullying had a deep, scarring effect on the teen, the lawsuit says. C.R. was so traumatized by the alleged bullying that at one point he spray-painted the word “hate” on the walls of his home.
C.R.’s grades dropped precipitously. He experienced depression and anxiety, and was unable to attend the four subsequent educational institutions in which he has been enrolled.
“This is a simple negligence case ― whenever you send your kid to a school you expect a certain standard of care,” Sounia Senemar, the family’s lawyer, told HuffPost. “They allowed this kid to be bullied, and they are trying to use religion as a shield.”
When asked to comment for this story, lawyers for Trinity said in a statement that the school is “committed to upholding standards that reflect our mission in Christ.”
“The school has a policy that prohibits any form of bullying or discrimination,” the statement read. “As soon as the school was informed of an issue over a year ago, it addressed it immediately, consistent with its policy.”
Multiple experts told HuffPost that Trinity’s tactic will almost certainly not succeed.
“The defendant here certainly qualifies as a religious school,” said University of Missouri School of Law Professor Carl Esbeck. “That’s not the problem.”
School bullying, however, is “not a matter of internal ecclesiastical governance,” he added. “They argue that it is, but it’s not. And it’s not even close.”
Attorneys say they will be closely watching the outcome of this case.
“If other religious schools see that this school here was successful in avoiding liability under this legal theory, then they are going to be more likely to invoke it if they face similar lawsuits in the future,” said Alison Tanner, legal fellow for the nonprofit group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.