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Issues of self-determination in societal sub-cultures

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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This item in today’s Houston Chronicle – Texas Supreme Court to hear case of suit against pastor – caught my attention today because it dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about lately. A DFW woman is suing her pastor for defamation, which is not all that suprising given the details –

In 2000, Penley told Westbrook that she was divorcing her husband, and Westbrook recommended an attorney. She also resigned her church membership because its bylaws set forth procedures allowing the congregation to discipline her and others for inappropriate behavior.

However, Westbrook met with church elders and later distributed a letter about Penley’s decision to get a divorce. The letter said she was involved with another man, although it didn’t specify the nature of their relationship.

The letter urged church members to shun Penley as part of a “tough love” approach for her to see her errors.

Penley and her husband divorced in 2001, and she married the other man. She then sued, challenging Westbrook’s actions as a counselor under the Texas Licensed Professional Counselor Act.

Nothing like a good old fashioned shunning. More interesting than the details of the case are the legal implications of the interaction of two sets of ‘law’ – the authority the state takes in holds in regulating the actions of professional counselors, and the authority of the church in disciplining its members.

There are a lot of legal issues (most of them, actually) that I’m completely clueless about right now (Hopefully less so in three years) but I’ve been actively cultivating ideas about some areas of possible study.

First, the American legal structure tolerates a number of overlapping jurisdictions – state, federal, municipal courts and some specialized courts, which manage a rat’s nest of statutory, case and regulatory law some of which may have competing claims for jurisdiction over a particular case. In addition, there are informal bodies that perform quasi-legal roles, in this case a church which takes it upon itself to discipline its members for their actions. These quasi-legal roles are quite pervasive and accepted for the most part – parents, after all, spend a lot of time and energy evaluating the actions of their children, correcting and meting out punishment as they see fit. Employers set rules, sometimes quite arbitrary, which carry legal weight, within certain limits. Churches too have a long history of performing this role, much of it gradually abrogated over the last hundred years. A group action such as concerted shunning seems a lot more shocking now than it did in the early colonies when church rule was de facto indistinguishable from civil authority.

I think I’ll have more to say on this later, but I’ve just started listening to Jon Meacham’s American Gospel and want to think about it in light of the historical structure he lays out. His interview with Charlie Rose is available from Google video for 99 cents.

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Category: law, of saints & sinners

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