A student at the Episcopal School of Dallas (ESD), John Doe Jr., sued the school over their decision to expel him after leaving school property at lunch time without first receiving permission.
Someone living nearby the school alerted ESD that they saw Doe Jr. parked on the street smoking marijuana, something Doe Jr. denies doing. He also did not allow for a search of his vehicle, but was caught on school security cameras leaving campus.
While the drug claims cannot be proven, he did break school rules by leaving campus, and was given the choice to either withdraw from the school or to be expelled. Doe Jr. and his father sued the school, based at least partially on the fact that tuition-paying parents were informed that students should be given a chance to redeem themselves after breaking rules rather than being kicked out after a single infraction. Doe Jr. had a clean school record when he was offered the choice to leave willingly or be forced out.
While the case was working its way through state district courts, ESD filed an appeal to the 5th Court stating that the case should be thrown out based on religious grounds.
Doe Jr., kept anonymous in court records because he’s a minor, and his father are now fighting the ESD in court over whether or not the school is a religious institution, therefore protected by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. This doctrine essentially states that the First Amendment’s guarantee that Americans are free to practice their religious without interference from the courts.
In this case, ESD is arguing that, as a religious organization, the Does cannot fight the expulsion in court. The school contends that, while it is not owned or financially supported by the Episcopal Diocese in Dallas, neither its board members nor staff are required to be Episcopalian, its students are not trained for seminaries, and only 15 percent of its student body is Episcopalian, it still requires students to attend chapel every day, the school was founded by an Episcopalian minister, and has clearly Christian guiding principles.
The Does state in their appeal that ESD’s religious qualifications are questions of fact, and the law states that these questions need to be decided by juries and trial courts, not by appellate judges. Aldous \ Walker LLP filed a brief supporting John Doe Jr., stating that,
"Application of the Ecclesiastic Abstention Doctrine would have had a devastating impact on Ms. Doe and, if applied in pending and future lawsuits, will certainly encourage private schools to ignore the needs of students who are victims of sexual assault or other abusive emotional and physical conduct.”
Aldous \ Walker LLP represented a different ESD student back in 2011. This student, a minor, was groomed for and led into a sexual relationship with one of her male teachers. He was fired from the school, and the school gave her the same “withdraw or be expelled” choice John Doe received in this case. She sued ESD, and a jury ruled in her favor, awarding her more than $6 million. The case was later settled between Jane Doe and ESD for an undisclosed sum in order to avoid an appeal.
Brent Walker, who was one of the attorneys representing Jane Doe in 2011, stated that the court’s decision on doe Jr.’s case is not in line with prior rulings handed down by the Supreme Court.
"ESD had tried to raise the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in our case ... and it didn't go anywhere for them," said Walker. "It is simply not a school that is a church school. It's a secular school."
Walker went on to say that broadening the doctrine like this to cover ESD’s disciplinary policy will also have a negative impact on religious freedom. He said that it could lead to other organizations claiming religious affiliation in order to receive the same protections ESD received. In an interview with the Dallas Observer, he asked the reporter, Patrick Williams, a rhetorical question:
“If his firm changed its name to the Episcopal Law Firm of Dallas, could it avoid any responsibility for mistakes?” wrote Williams. “"Sorry, I forget to file your lawsuit," he says, but there's nothing you can do. Too bad.”