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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:Peggy Lee Penley experienced marital difficulties with her husband Benjamin Stone. In August 1998, they obtained counseling services from C.L. “Buddy” Westbrook, a licensed professional marriage counselor and Penley’s fellow congregant at McKinney Memorial Bible Church. This counseling took place in three sessions at Westbrook’s office. Penley paid for two or three of these sessions. Westbrook also conducted two counseling sessions with Stone in August 1998. In October 1999, Westbrook and others, including Penley and Stone, broke from their church and formed CrossLand Community Bible Church. The congregants elected Westbrook as CrossLand’s pastor. Westbrook also served as a church elder. CrossLand, a “Christ-centered church,” operated according to principles and practices described in the church’s constitution and statement of faith. CrossLand required all membership applicants to affirm their willingness to abide by the church’s constitution, including its disciplinary policy. The disciplinary policy stated: “We believe that one of the primary responsibilities of the church is to maintain the purity of the Body. . . . In recognition of the importance of this obligation, the elders will biblically and lovingly utilize every appropriate means to restore members who find themselves in patterns of serious misconduct. When efforts at restoration fail, the elders will apply the Biblical teaching on church discipline, which could include revocation of membership, along with an appropriate announcement made to the membership.” The church’s constitution had a similar provision. Penley became a CrossLand member the same month the church was formed in October 1999. In response to a request to “[a]ffirm your willingness to abide by the constitution of this church,” Penley responded, “I can abide by the church constitution . . . willingly.” In July 2000, Penley separated from her husband. Thereafter, Penley and Stone participated in a series of weekly group counseling sessions at Westbrook’s home. She considered them to be an extension of her previous professional counseling relationship with Westbrook. Westbrook did not charge for these sessions and all of the couples who participated were CrossLand members. The counseling sessions were unsuccessful and Penley decided that she would seek a divorce from Stone. Around October 2000, Penley and Stone went to Westbrook’s home for what they thought would be another group session, but Westbrook and his wife were the only ones there. During a break, Penley spoke separately with Westbrook and informed him that she had decided to divorce Stone. She also confided that she had engaged in an extramarital sexual relationship. According to Penley’s pleadings, Westbrook counseled her and recommended a family law attorney she could consult. When Westbrook broached the topic of church discipline that her extramarital relationship would require, Penley informed him that she was resigning from CrossLand. Thereafter, Westbrook and the church elders composed a letter to the CrossLand congregation concerning Penley’s actions, which they published to the membership on Nov. 7, 2000. The letter described the disciplinary process by which CrossLand members were bound. The letter explained to the congregation that Penley intended to divorce her husband, there was no biblical basis for the divorce, she had engaged in a “biblically inappropriate” relationship with another man, and she had rejected efforts to bring her to repentance and reconciliation. Describing the disciplinary process as one of “tough love,” the letter encouraged the congregation to “break fellowship” with Penley in order to obtain her repentance and restoration to the church body. The letter admonished the congregation to treat the matter as a “members-only issue, not to be shared with those outside [the congregation].” In November 2001, Penley sued Westbrook, CrossLand and the church elders alleging causes of action for defamation, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In response to her claims, Westbrook filed a plea challenging the court’s jurisdiction, contending the suit involved an “ecclesiastical dispute” concerning a church disciplinary matter, which the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution precluded the trial court from adjudicating. The church and the elders filed a similar motion to dismiss. The trial court granted the defendants’ motions and dismissed the case. Penley appealed the trial court’s order but subsequently dismissed her appeal as to all defendants except Westbrook. The 2nd Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of all claims against Westbrook except for professional negligence, which it held concerned Westbrook’s role as Penley’s secular professional counselor and did not invoke First Amendment concerns. The Texas Supreme Court granted Westbrook’s petition for review to examine the trial court’s jurisdiction over Penley’s professional-negligence claim in light of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. HOLDING:The court reversed the 2nd Court’s judgment and dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction. Under First Amendment jurisprudence, government action may improperly burden the free exercise of religion in two quite different ways: by interfering with an individual’s observance or practice of a particular faith and by encroaching on the church’s ability to manage its internal affairs. Penley argued that her suit centered on Westbrook’s initial disclosure to the church elders of confidential information obtained during the marital counseling sessions, which she claimed constituted a breach of professional counseling standards. Because “her primary focus is on Westbrook’s disclosure of her confidential information to others separate and apart from the publication of the November 7 letter,” Penley contended that her claims did not involve matters of religious doctrine, practice or church governance. The court noted Westbrook’s “breach of a secular duty” in disclosing Penley’s confidential information to the church elders. But the court found that Westbrook’s disclosure could not be isolated from the church-disciplinary process in which it occurred. Subjecting CrossLand’s pastor to tort liability, the court continued, for engaging in the disciplinary process that the church requires would clearly have a “chilling effect” on churches’ ability to discipline members and deprive churches of their right to construe and administer church laws. In sum, the court stated, while the elements of Penley’s professional-negligence claim can be defined by neutral principles without regard to religion, the application of those principles to impose civil tort liability on Westbrook would impinge upon CrossLand’s ability to manage its internal affairs and hinder adherence to the church disciplinary process that its constitution requires. In addition, the court concluded that the secular confidentiality interest Penley’s professional-negligence claim advanced failed to override the strong constitutional presumption that favored preserving the church’s interest in managing its affairs. OPINION:O’Neill, J., delivered the opinion of the court.

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