Church Member Sues Pastor For Following Church Bylaws 

Rev. C.L. “Buddy” Westbrook, pastor of CrossLand Community Bible Church and a licensed professional counselor, provided marriage and spiritual counseling to Peggy Penley and her husband, both founding members of the church.

In 2000, Penley told Westbrook that she was engaged in activity that violated vital aspects of the church’s religious beliefs. Westbrook followed their tenets regarding church discipline as described in the New Testament book of Matthew, Chapter 18, and also included in the church’s bylaws. The church leaders met with Penley one on one, then with the church elders, and finally, Westbrook followed the final step in their belief’s prescribed process, by involving the congregation

Penley sued Westbrook, the elders, and the church in 2001. Among other claims, her lawsuit alleged defamation. Initially, a lower state district court judge tossed out the case. Penley appealed, but then dropped claims against everyone she had sued except for Westbrook. The Court of Appeals for the Second District of Texas, located in Fort Worth, partly ruled against Pastor Westbrook, due to his status as a licensed professional counselor.

Legal Action

In 2006, First Liberty represented Pastor Westbrook in front of the Texas Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Pastor Westbrook, reversing the decision made by the appeals court. In the Texas Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice Harriett O’Neill wrote that to separate Westbrook’s obligation of confidentiality to Penley as a counselor and his obligation as a pastor to Penley and the church to bring up the matter would “unconstitutionally entangle the court in matters of church governance and impinge on the core religious function of church discipline.”

The major concern in this case was that a decision in Penley’s favor could set a precedent allowing religious leaders to face litigation from parishioners when a house of worship operates pursuant to tenets of their own beliefs and bylaws. In addition, a decision in Penley’s favor could have led to increased government interference in the internal operations of churches and religious institutions.

In a victory for religious freedom and the rights of churches to govern themselves without unlawful government intervention, the Texas Supreme Court created precedent that protects the rights and autonomy of churches and all houses of worship.

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