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LA Supreme Court wisely advances religious freedom

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruled correctly on a case pitting religious freedom against laws requiring reporting of a crime against minors, finding a way to permit attainment of both objections.

This issue involved the confession a female minor made to Rev. Jeff Bayhi in 2008, where she allegedly told him of abuse at the hands of a now-deceased male member of the congregation. The family had sued Bayhi and the Diocese of Baton Rouge, saying he should have alerted authorities. But canon law unambiguously states that for a priest to violate ministrations under the confessional seal, even if the penitent reveals the content of it, would lead to his excommunication.

The Court had ruled over two years ago that if the penitent voluntarily revealed the information then courts could compel the priest to testify, in an attempt to clarify ambiguity in statutes. The Children’s Code maintained that mandatory reporters, defined as to include clergy, had to report potential endangerment regardless of privilege, while the Code of Evidence made privileged communications under confession. The defendants brought the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

Yet that result actually could have factored into the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision. By then, the defendants had issued another, state-level, legal challenge besides that, to have declared unconstitutional the status of a priest as a mandatory reporter by citing the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment religious questions doctrine and federal law. The declination signaled that the Court felt the other challenge should proceed under the state’s Constitution and that in fact the state’s version of religious free exercise, its Preservation of Religious Freedom Act that follows from Art. I Sec. 8 of the state’s Constitution (which mirrors the First Amendment’s language), did apply as argued by the defendants in the other case.

The Louisiana Supreme Court essentially agreed with that reasoning, last week denying an appeal by the plaintiffs of a district court’s hearing that determined unconstitutional the mandatory reporter status of priests when as confessors because of conflict with Art. I Sec. 8. It stated that it had to resolve ambiguity between laws, and guided by the Constitution concluded that the law by definition could not turn priests into mandatory reporters of privileged confidential communication, mooting the suit. In doing so, it reversed partially the district court ruling, which had invalidated the entire section regarding mandatory reporting for clergy.

Unfortunately, the whole incident came about because, as the law made clear without need of judicial clarification, all the penitent had to do was to repeat the information outside of the confessional to Bayhi and then, without the seal of confession intervening, he could have reported to the appropriate authorities. For whatever reason, that never happened.

The Court’s willingness to apply robustly the Act indicates that it may act similarly in other such future cases. A potential one could involve a facsimile law or executive order to former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Marriage and Conscience executive order, which elaborated on the Act in situations where religious beliefs on marriage intersected with the judicially-manufactured disallowance of marriage defined only as a union between a single man and a single woman, and render a ruling favorable to that. In any event, its present stance is most welcome.

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