A decision by the Texas Supreme Court could give religiously affiliated private schools legal carte blanche to harm children.


As parents, when we enroll our children in a school, we entrust it to care for our kids and keep them safe. That’s certainly true for private K-12 schools which can cost upwards of $15,000 to $30,000 a year. Some parents believe that religiously affiliated schools are particularly trustworthy because of their spiritual teachings.

But, of course, all schools—be they religious or secular—can leave children vulnerable to psychological harm, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Now there is a case in the courts in which the Episcopal School of Dallas has been alleged to have caused a child emotional trauma, while the school claims that no court has the right to intervene because it is faith-based.

The case involves a lawsuit filed by John Doe, a pseudonym for the father of a minor who was 16 years old at the time of the incident. The father says ESD caused his son emotional trauma by falsely accusing him of, and then expelling him for, violating school rules. ESD says its religious affiliation exempts it from judicial review under the First Amendment.

When the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas considered the case, it sided with ESD, saying that the court shouldn’t “pass judgment on the school’s internal affairs and governance.”

Now the case is before the Texas Supreme Court which will soon decide whether to grant review and weigh in on the issue. The Child-Friendly Faith Project strongly opposes the Court of Appeals’ decision and filed an amicus brief with the Texas Supreme Court.

Depending on how the Texas Supreme Court decides, the case could have far-reaching ramifications and potentially affect thousands of children who attend religiously affiliated private schools for generations to come.

As we stated in our amicus letter, the lower court’s ruling is extremely troubling. The case currently before the Texas Supreme Court could potentially leave students in faith-based schools more vulnerable to maltreatment than those in secular schools, which is discriminatory.

“The court of appeals’ opinion can be read to give private schools, under the guise of religion, free reign to engage in abusive discipline of students,” Doe’s lawyers told the Supreme Court.

Furthermore, it would be far too easy for an institution to avoid lawsuits simply by claiming they are faith-based or religiously affiliated.

ESD is a case in point. Despite its legal position as a faith-based school, it enrolls students who come from families of all faiths and philosophical backgrounds and has a curriculum that is largely secular. In fact, while John Doe’s child was attending ESD, none of the school’s “principles of honor, respect, and integrity” reflected a religious tenet, and its mission statement—that ESD strives to develop “the educated conscience” inside each student—contains no religious or spiritual message. ESD also expressly promised to provide a “reasonable, consistent, and fair disciplinary structure” with no mention of religious doctrine.

This is not the first time that ESD has been accused of disciplining a child in an arbitrary or unethical way. In 2011, a jury awarded more than $9 million for the school’s handling of a case in which a teacher sexually abused a female student. Shockingly, ESD expelled the victim. Ultimately, a jury found that the school had been “grossly negligent” for failing to protect the student.

And so it’s paramount that all schoolchildren, regardless of what kind of institution they attend—whether it’s private, public, religious or secular—must be protected from harm. The Child-Friendly Faith Project is watching the ESD case closely and has launched an awareness campaign to educate the public about its potential impact.

Read a summary of the case in this article published by the Austin American-Statesman. Read an op-ed written by Janet Heimlich that was published in newspapers across Texas. CHILDUSA, a child advocacy organization that combats child abuse, has filed an amicus brief. Read it here.

Do you believe that there are situations in which parents do not have the right to sue religious schools? Have you had personal dealings with a faith-based institution that was found to have abused children? If so, please leave a comment below.

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Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment," the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project whose mission is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. She also sits on the board of directors of Foundation Beyond Belief and co-hosts the podcast, "Parenting Beyond Belief." Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work for which she won numerous journalism awards; she has also written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.


  1. Richard Russell
    July 20, 2018

    Some Appalachian states (Alabama to New York) have outlawed snake handling by children under 18. Churches that practice it believe fervently that it is commanded by scripture; and it is clearly an integral part of their worship. So far courts have upheld the legislation. Consistency would seem to let courts oversee parochial schools on civil and human rights issues. In many jurisdictions this is breaking new ground. SCOTUS has permitted states to apply child labor laws to Jehovah’s Witness activities.

  2. Michelle Dauphinais Echols
    March 12, 2018

    This is exactly the issue we, the 9littlegirls, are fighting in South Dakota. In 2010, the state blocked the ability for childhood sexual abuse survivors to make civil claims against any entities like schools and churches through statute and case law. For more information see our Facebook page, 9littlegirls.

  3. March 11, 2018

    It is still legal in 19 US states for teachers to “punish” children with paddles and many injuries have occurred disproportionately to autistic, disabled and minority children. It is a civil rights violation. Some of these states have laws protecting educators from liability. US Congress over the past few years has rejected several bills to make this illegal. Texas is one of the states that are legally permitted to paddle and are one of the worst offenders. This major issue receives little public attention and shows the context and depth of the problem of private schools as well in Texas. Many advocates have contacted Congress but the legislators are in denial or do not care denial despite over 30 years of research about the danger to children. We have to keep on advocating.

    • March 11, 2018

      David, you raise a good point. If the Texas Supreme Court were to let the lower court’s ruling stand, private schools (which are already legally permitted to physically punish children in many states) could abuse children with impunity in the civil courts. An individual staff member possibly could be criminally charged, but no parent could sue the institution.

  4. Brien Doyle
    March 11, 2018

    This is no different from the Taliban; It is totalitarian control standard with all religions.
    No, the religions do NOT have lex superior over the laws on human rights.

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