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Free Speech

Minister Not Liable for Disclosing and Condemning Deceased's Suicide in Funeral Homily


From Hullibarger v. Archdiocese of Detroit, decided yesterday by the Michigan Court of Appeals (Presiding Judge Redford, joined by Judges Borrello and Tukel):

Plaintiff's son committed suicide in early December 2018, but his family kept the manner of his death from the public. Plaintiff's pastor, defendant Father Don LaCuesta, officiated at the funeral and during his homily revealed the suicide of plaintiff's son to the public. He then proceeded to preach about suicide as a grave sin and specifically about how it endangered the immortal soul of plaintiff's son. The trial court concluded that Father LaCuesta's conduct was protected by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and the negligent hiring, supervision and retention allegation, Count Three, was barred for other reasons as well, and thus granted summary disposition to defendants as to all claims. Finding no error in the circuit court's reasoning, we affirm its order….

[R]esolution of plaintiff's claims would require a decision regarding matters of church doctrine and polity and, therefore, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied to bar plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff argues her complaint does not seek resolution of religious issues. Rather, plaintiff asserts her claims concern an agreement by Father LaCuesta to preside over the funeral service for her son—for which Father LaCuesta was compensated through a donation—in accordance with requests from the Hullibarger family regarding the content of the funeral service. But the actual adjudication of each of plaintiff's claims would require an inquiry into religious doctrine and practices regarding sermons and funeral services, suicide, as well as why Father LaCuesta chose the words that he did, and personnel issues regarding hiring practices of the Catholic Church….

[As to the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim,] to find that the content of Father LaCuesta's homily at the funeral regarding the suicide of plaintiff's son was "extreme" or "outrageous" would require the trial court to evaluate Catholic philosophy and doctrine regarding suicide, and whether Father LaCuesta complied with it. It would also require evaluation of procedures for developing and providing religious sermons, which are unequivocally ecclesiastical in nature….

Plaintiff's misrepresentation claim alleged, in part, that Father LaCuesta agreed to deliver a positive, uplifting sermon but, instead, spoke about "the nature of her son's death," and how it constituted a sinful act that brought into question "her son's eternal salvation." Plaintiff's invasion of privacy claim alleged that Father LaCuesta disclosed the cause of her son's death, Father LaCuesta should have known the cause of death "was a personal matter and not of public concern," and disclosure of the cause of death "was not consistent with any legitimate pastoral duty and/or concern to the public." … [E]valuation of [these] claims requires an inquiry into the decision-making process behind drafting and giving religious sermons, as well as into Catholic doctrine and teachings regarding suicide, and, once again, the reasons Father LaCuesta chose to deliver the words he did. As stated earlier, courts should not evaluate sermons delivered at  religious services….

Under her claim of vicarious liability, plaintiff alleged, in part, that Father LaCuesta was under the supervision and control of the Archdiocese of Detroit and he "act[ed] in his special role of priest and adviser, using the premises of the Archdiocese's parish," and the "trust, power and the authority his position granted him." And, under her claim for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention, plaintiff alleged that Father LaCuesta was "unfit and/or incompetent to perform" his pastoral duties and that the Archdiocese of Detroit knew, or should have known, that Father LaCuesta previously engaged in similar conduct as that alleged in plaintiff's complaint….

[But] "[t]he Roman Catholic Church is an hierarchical organization and the Bishop's power to make assignments of ministers to a parish is certainly a matter of ecclesiastical polity in which the courts may not interfere." … The trial court thus properly dismissed plaintiff's claim involving the hiring, supervision and retention of Father LaCuesta, as those decisions by the Church are constitutionally protected…. Furthermore, plaintiff's claims of vicarious liability and negligent hiring, supervision, and retention fail because Father LaCuesta's actions were constitutionally protected, and there can be no liability for a principal if the agent has committed no actionable wrong.

Seems right to me. Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.