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Coalition of Christian and pro-life groups backs Louisiana diocese’s defense of confessional seal

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A group of 18 Catholic, Christian, and pro-life organizations has come together in support of the Diocese of Baton Rouge and one of its priests in a legal battle with religious liberty implications for Americans of all faiths.

Catholic Action for Faith and Family filed an amicus brief along with the other groups in late September responding to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s order for Baton Rouge priest Father Jeff Bayhi to break the seal of confession, something that goes against the tenets of the Catholic faith and would result in his excommunication from the Church.

“The thought of a priest going to jail because of his faith made me feel like it was a family member going to jail for something he didn’t do,” Thomas McKenna, president of Catholic Action for Faith and Family, told LifeSiteNews. “This is a major step, it’s unprecedented. I thought, ‘I could be next.’”

In the case, involving a minor child at the time who is said to have shared in confession that she was the victim of sexual abuse, the Louisiana Supreme Court ordered Father Bayhi to reveal the contents of the alleged confessions or go to jail.  

The State Supreme Court ruling reversed a previous decision by the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the initial lawsuit filed against Father Bayhi and the diocese, suggesting that priests hearing confession are mandatory child abuse reporters, and that the seal of confession protects only the penitent and not the priest.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge has stood by Father Bayhi and fought the attempt to force him to testify about the confessions he may have heard. The diocese filed its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in August.

If the high court justices decline to hear the case or rule against Father Bayhi and the Baton Rouge diocese, Father Bayhi will have no recourse.

“If they don’t hear it, there is no appeal,” said McKenna. “And this priest is going to jail.”

“A priest who has incurred an automatic excommunication for breaking the seal is no longer allowed to act as a priest. He is disqualified from ministry as long as the excommunication is in effect,” the amicus brief said. “Thus, the action of the state of Louisiana would coerce priests into doing acts that will disqualify them from ministry in the Catholic Church and thus directly impact who the Church is able to appoint and retain as its ministers, in violation of Hosanna-Tabor.”

McKenna immediately called on the other organizations in the brief to join in after learning that the case had progressed to the U.S. Supreme Court, because, he said, the outcome will have broad implications for Americans of all faiths and types of institutions.

The Catholic groups who joined the brief are Catholic Answers, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Catholics Come Home, Priests for Life, Catholics Called to Witness, the Cardinal Kung Foundation, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Catholics at Work Orange County and Catholic War Veterans of the United States of America.

Christian and pro-life groups include The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, Anglicans for Life, Charismatic Episcopal Church for Life, National Pro-Life Center, Faith and Action, The National Clergy Council, The National Pro-Life Religious Council and Gospel of Life Ministries.

“The whole point is to show the concern to the American public,” he said. “We wanted to show that this is a grassroots effort, this is a religious liberty issue.”

“I wanted to stand by the diocese, I wanted to stand by a priest, that’s the least we could do,” said McKenna. “If they decide not to hear it, it’s very grave.”

Amicus briefs have been filed as well by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, Belmont Abbey College, and The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

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The lead attorney on the Catholic Action for Faith and Family brief said the Louisiana Supreme Court’s ruling is without legal precedent. Charles LiMandri of Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund told LifeSiteNews that no state Supreme Court has struck down priest-penitent privilege before now.

The Louisiana Supreme Court ruling also violated the Ministerial Exception protections of the First Amendment, he said, citing the 2012 Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC ruling, where the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously that the government could not interfere in the employment of church ministers.

The court’s ruling that Father Bayhi must testify as to whether confessions took place and if so, to the contents of the confessions, not only goes against all precedent, but, says LiMandri, it’s not rational.

“You can’t violate a privilege to see if it applies,” he said.

The state compelling Father Bayhi to violate the confessional seal is a legal first, he said, but it’s also an example of increasing secularism and anti-Christian, anti-Catholic hostility.

“That’s never happened in this country. It’s unthinkable,” he said. “It’s not in the public interest to force a priest to be a mandatory reporter.”

For Catholics who take their faith seriously this is a very important issue, LiMandri said, but the religious liberty implications do not end with Catholics. “This applies to other faiths,” he warned. Based on the numbers of people of faith in the U.S., “hundreds of millions are affected.”

After briefs are filed in opposition in the coming weeks, the diocese will file in reply, according to LiMandri, which will likely occur in the first part of December, and LiMandri currently estimates that the case will be set for Conference before the U.S. Supreme Court in early to mid-January.

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