In The Church

Texas Pastor Stands for the Right of Church Autonomy

Posted May 11th, 2012


Opulent Life Church; Telsa DeBerry v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi | Liberty Institute

Background

  • Rev. C.L. “Buddy” Westbrook, pastor of CrossLand Community Bible Church and a licensed professional counselor, provided marriage and spiritual counseling to Peggy Penley and her husband, both founding members of the church.
  • In 2000, Penley told Westbrook that she was in a relationship with another man and intended to divorce her husband. Pastor Westbrook followed the tenets of Matthew 18, by meeting with her one on one to ask her to repent of her sin. When she did not, the elders were brought into the situation. Finally, the elders and Pastor Westbrook were left with no choice but to follow Matthew 18 and the church bylaws and send a letter to the congregation informing them that Penley was engaged in sin and refusing to repent.
  • Penley then sued Pastor Westbrook in 2001, alleging defamation and other claims.

Current Status

  • Inititally, a lower state district court judge tossed out Penley’s case. The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth overturned this decision and claimed Penley had a legitimate case against Pastor Westbrook due to his status as a licensed professional counselor.
  • In 2006, Liberty Institute represented Pastor Westbrook in front of the Texas Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Pastor Westbrook, reversing the 2nd Court of Appeals decision, because to separate Westbrook’s secular obligations as a counselor and his religious obligations as a pastor would “unconstitutionally entangle the court in matters of church governance and impinge on the core religious function of church discipline.”

Impact

  • The major concern in this case was that it could set a precedent allowing religious leaders to face litigation from parishoners because the church exercises church discipline pursuant to Matthew 18. Christian leaders must have the right to exercise instruction and discipline as they see fit within the context of their private institution without fear of being sued for things like defamation.
  • This case also could have set a precedent that would have far-reaching effects in biblical counseling programs at seminaries around the nation. If obtaining a state license as a professional counselor would have opened the door to lawsuits against pastors, many of the counseling programs in seminaries would cease operations.

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