The Constitutional Bar to Actions for “Clergy Malpractice”

When a religious organization is sued by one of its members for physical or emotional injuries, the organization’s religious leader is typically included as a party defendant.  Though under certain circumstances a religious leader can be sued, religious leaders cannot be sued for failure to follow the religious principles of their faith.  Often termed claims for “clergy malpractice,” the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects religious leaders, and their employers, from  such actions.

Claims for clergy malpractice are constitutionally barred because such actions require courts to determine whether the religious leaders properly interpreted and applied the tenets of their faith. It has been held that “[a]llowing a secular court or jury to determine whether a church and its clergy have sufficiently disciplined, sanctioned, or counseled a church member would insert the State into church matters in a fashion wholly forbidden by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

Therefore, when suit is brought against a religious leader, a careful review must be made to determine if the action includes a prohibited claim for clergy malpractice.  The attorneys in Gray Robinson’s Religious Organizations Practice Group can perform this important analysis.