Ministers Decry Clergy Counseling Ruling

Source: Los Angeles Times
Date: October 27, 1987

Concerned with what they say is a governmental intrusion into church counseling, several ministers Monday decried a recent state Court of Appeal ruling that clergy who counsel "suicidal individuals" have a duty to refer those individuals to psychiatrists or other authorities qualified to prevent suicides.

"The alarm is spreading through the country," said the Rev. Franklin Littel, an emeritus professor from Temple University. "Every priest, minister and rabbi is in jeopardy."

Littel referred to a decision in the nation's first "clergy malpractice" case. The lawsuit, dismissed by trial judges twice and half-tried once, was reinstated for a second trial on a 2-1 vote Sept. 16 by the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The court reaffirmed its decision Oct. 16, saying that pastors have "a compelling secular interest" to prevent suicide by referring someone who is suicidal to mental health professionals.

The $1-million suit suit was filed in 1980 by Walter and Maria Nally of Tujunga against Grace Community Church of Sun Valley in connection with the shotgun suicide the year before of their 24-year-old son, Kenneth.

The Nallys alleged that four ministers at the fundamentalist church incompetently counseled their son, burdened him with guilt by attributing his emotional problems to sin and failed to insist that he receive psychiatric help when they realized he was suicidal.

The church has said that young Nally was seen by at least eight physicians and mental health professionals in the last two months of his life, and that the church counselors referred him to two physicians and a professor of psychology.

Justice Earl Johnson, writing the majority decision for the appeal court in September, said that "established principles of California law impose a duty of due care on those who undertake a counseling relationship with suicidal individuals." The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom does not shield the church's counselors "from liability for failure to meet this standard of care," Johnson wrote.

Attorneys for the church have indicated that they may appeal the order for a new trial to the State Supreme Court.

The appeals court decision amounts to "clear evidence of intrusion" by government into religious matters, according to the Rev. James Wood of Baylor University, the founding editor of Church-State magazine.

Wood joined Littel; the Rev. J. Gordon Melton, author of the two-volume Encyclopedia of American Religion, and Los Angeles attorney Barry A. Fisher, an authority on church-state legal issues, at a news conference in the Biltmore Hotel.

"The court is confusing religious counseling with the role of medical doctors," said Melton, a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Religious counseling is a valid role. It includes a moral dimension, and it has nothing to do with psychiatric roles."

Fisher said he would advise pastors today to be very cautious in what they say to anyone seeking counseling. "This ruling should have a chilling effect on churches," Fisher said.

The news conference preceded a hastily called, two-day consultation by a dozen or more clergy and attorneys. Littel said the purpose was to "launch a counteroffensive to the assault on religious liberty." He declared that the Nally case was part of a growing pattern of government intervention into religious activities.

Fisher said members of the Church of Scientology, who have sponsored religious liberty conferences in Los Angeles before, often at the height of their court battles, are a part of the consultation and helped to organize this initial meeting. But Littel said the relatively minor costs of this consultation were borne by his own Hamlin Institute in Philadelphia and other groups.