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Separating Church And State?

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, filed in Wood County, is an interesting attempt to hold the diocese accountable for years of failure to crack down on predator priests. He filed it under the Consumer Credit and Protection Act, accusing diocesan officials in the past of knowingly hiring sexual predators to work at schools and summer camps for children.

Parents who trusted the church — and paid tuition and camp fees — did so in the belief they could trust diocesan officials but found they could not. In effect, the church misrepresented itself in selling the parents a product — education and summer recreation.

But last week, Wood County Judge J.D. Beane ruled against Morrisey — tentatively. He put the lawsuit on hold and asked the state Supreme Court to answer two questions. Both involve the doctrine of separation of church and state that is central to religious freedom.

Beane wrote that the lawsuit is “an excessive entanglement of government and religion which is prohibited under federal and state constitutions.” He suggested dismissing the suit is necessary “to remain vigilant in protecting religious freedom and in protecting religious institutions from substantial government intrusion.”

Is it?

Government does not have a strictly hands-off stance toward faith-based institutions. If crimes are committed by church figures, parishioners have a right to expect charges will be filed. If church officials cover up those crimes, they, too, can be charged as accessories.

Yes, this is different. We have criminal law and civil law, and they differ for good reasons.

Civil law is intended to safeguard us when criminal law does not cover wrongdoing. In some situations, such as breach of trust involving financial transactions, it is civil, not criminal, law to which we turn for redress.

Are churches to be exempt from liability under our civil statutes? It seems to me that’s the question West Virginia Supreme Court justices are being asked to answer. I don’t envy them. It’s a tough issue — one that may result in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ah, you say, but this case was filed by the government, not by a private attorney on behalf of the upset parents.

Indeed, that could make a difference. One cannot accuse a private attorney of endangering separation of church and state.

We’ll see — but I suspect this one isn’t as simple as it may appear at first glance. Think about this: If Morrisey is violating separation of church and state, what about the state Department of Education’s requirements on Catholic schools?

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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