Court: Law against clergy sex with parishioner does not inhibit religion

The Minnesota Supreme Court today reversed a Court of Appeals ruling that granted a new trial for a St. Paul priest who said religious doctrine was used in his prosecution in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Christopher Wenthe was convicted in 2011 of having sex with a young woman he was counseling.

I first wrote about this case in November 2012, after the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial because there was too much religion in the prosecution.

But the prosecutor in the case, in attempting to show Wenthe held power over the woman, introduced the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine on the religious authority of priests, chastity, and the church’s “moral prohibition on engaging in sexual relationships.” The prosecutor also provided testimony from a church staff member about the archdiocese’s “emphasis on maintaining boundaries with parishioners.”

That’s too much religion, the Court of Appeals said, noting it “presents a serious risk of excessive government entanglement” in religion. It said the prosecutor provided the jury with “religious standards for judging (Wenthe’s) conduct. “It invited the jury to determine appellant’s guilt on the basis of his violation of Roman Catholic doctrine, his breaking of the priestly vows of celibacy, and his abuse of the spiritual authority bestowed on Roman Catholic priests.”

The priest was prosecuted under a Minnesota law that prohibits a clergy member from having sexual contact with a parishioner when the parishioner is seeking or receiving “religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort” in private. He argued that the law unconstitutionally singles out clergy, which fails a test for determining whether it violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. He also argued that the statute “inhibits” religion.

But today the Minnesota Supreme Court rejected the argument, saying “it covers only those clergy who choose to use their position as a clergy member, or who hold themselves out as a clergy member, to enter into sexual relationships with vulnerable individuals.”

“The statute does not impose burdens on becoming or remaining a clergy member of any religion, and it does not prevent individuals from seeking religious or spiritual aid, advice, or comfort or otherwise interfere with efforts to seek such assistance,” Justice Lori Gildea wrote for the majority. “And, because the statute covers relationships in which a parishioner is seeking any type of ‘religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort,’ regardless of the substance of that ‘advice, aid, or comfort,’ the statute does not interfere with the practice of any particular religious doctrine or only certain religions.”

Gildea also said members of the clergy aren’t singled out by the law. “The clergy-sexual-conduct statute not only criminalizes certain sexual relationships between clergy and parishioners, but it could also criminalize certain sexual relationships for physicians, psychologists, nurses, chemical dependency counselors, social workers, marriage and family therapists, mental health service providers, or others persons who provide psychotherapy; government and private correctional employees; and masseuses,” she said.

Wenthe also argued the state law is unconstitutional because it prevents him from exercising “a civil right”—the right to have a sexual relationship with a friend. But the court today rejected that argument, too, saying it only inhibits relationships with people the Legislature has deemed “vulnerable.”

In a previous case, the court overturned a clergy member’s conviction because the jury might have found the defendant guilty more for violating church doctrine than state law. But “the fact that the jury acquitted Wenthe of one count and found him guilty of the other supports the inference that the jury was properly focused on the elements in the statute,” Justice Gildea wrote.

In a dissent from the majority, however, Justice Alan Page asserted the state law itself is unconstitutional.

Today’s ruling sends the case back to the Court of Appeals.

Here’s the full decision today. And here is a webcast of the arguments before the Minnesota Supreme Court last summer.