This recent “Sightings” column alerts us to some issues regarding privacy and church discipline.
— Duane R. Bidwell
A minister who is licensed by the state of Texas as a mental-health
professional cannot claim First Amendment protections for a breach of
confidentiality, a Texas appeals court has ruled.
The case alleges that Fort Worth minister C. L. “Buddy” Westbrook, a
licensed professional counselor and pastor of Crossland Community Bible
Church, broke confidence when he wrote a letter to his congregation
directing church members to avoid contact with a woman until “the time of
repentance and restoration.” The action was necessary, he wrote, because
she was engaging “in a biblically inappropriate relationship” and seeking a
Under the congregation’s bylaws, church members can be disciplined for
behaviors the congregation considers inappropriate. But the woman, who had
resigned from the church prior to Westbrook’s letter, says the information
he shared was obtained during a counseling relationship and is therefore
A pastor’s right to discipline church members — even by revealing
confidential information — seems a cornerstone of Westbrook’s
defense. Earlier, a state district judge threw out the case because it
applied a secular standard to a church conflict. This implies that the
pastor’s actions are protected by the First Amendment as “freedom of religion.”
But last month the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ruled that the
lawsuit could move ahead because the pastor is a licensed professional
counselor and therefore accountable to professional standards for
confidentiality established by the Texas Professional Counselor Act.
The plaintiff, appeals court Judge Anne Gardner wrote, has a “viable claim
involving the pastor’s alleged breach of duty in his secular counseling
role that does not implicate the propriety of the church’s disciplinary
The decision seems consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1990 ruling in
Employment Division vs. Smith that generally applicable laws, such as those
governing professional counselors, may be applied even if they restrict
When Westbrook revealed private information obtained through a counseling
relationship, he violated Texas standards for licensed counselors —
standards he agreed to follow when he sought and received state licensure.
But licensed or not, he also flouted well-established ethical guidelines
for the practice of pastoral counseling and standards for professional
conduct established by many denominations and honored by most ministers.
The Code of Ethics of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors
(AAPC) specifically states:
“We do not disclose client confidences to anyone, except: as mandated by
law; to prevent a clear and immediate danger to someone; in the course of
civil, criminal or disciplinary action arising from the counseling where
the pastoral counselor is a defendant; for purposes of supervision or
consultation; or by previously obtained written permission.”
Westbrook is not a certified pastoral counselor, an AAPC member, or a staff
member at an accredited pastoral counseling center. But even if he cannot
be held to the professional standards of the pastoral counseling community,
the policies of most Christian denominations would call his behavior into
Confidentiality, of course, is not an absolute standard. Clergy and
mental-health practitioners have an ethical (and often legal)
responsibility to break confidentiality when children or the elderly are
being abused or when people are a danger to themselves or others. This
does not seem to have been a factor in Westbrook’s decision to share
confidential information, however.
In allowing the lawsuit against Westbrook, the 2nd Court of Appeals has
made a decision consistent with state and federal law. More importantly,
the decision is consistent with our culture’s broader consensus —
including the consensus of professional organizations and communities of
faith — that a breach of confidentiality can often be an abuse of pastoral
Rev. Duane R. Bidwell, Ph.D., is a certified pastoral counselor and
director of the Pastoral Care and Training Center, an AAPC-accredited
pastoral counseling center at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian
University. He is author of Short-Term Spiritual Guidance: A Contemporary
Approach to a Classic Discipline (Fortress Press, 2004).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty
Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.