The Church of Scientology is asking the Supreme Court to let it use clergy-penitent privilege to keep secret more than 18,000 pages of documents on former member and employee Laura DeCrescenzo. It has picked up some unusual allies—the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization.
DeCrescenzo is suing Scientology and alleging a number of abuses, including a forced abortion when she was 17. The California courts have ordered Scientology to turn over the records. Scientology has complied, but asked the Supreme Court to overturn the order, arguing that the conversations were protected by the state's clergy-penitent privilege.
In California, clergy may invoke the privilege even if the parishioner waives it. However, the privilege only stands if the conversation took place between one clergyperson and one parishioner. The courts ruled that since 259 Scientologists reviewed DeCrescenzo's documents, they're no longer confidential. And even though Scientology leaders have argued that all of the reviewers were clergy sworn to secrecy, that's still 258 too many, according to the California courts. If the case is allowed to stand, clergy in California will not be able to rely on the privilege if they share penitent conversations with other church leaders.
That makes the California rule a violation of the First Amendment, the NCC argued in a brief asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. Limiting the scope to a one-on-one conversation favors some religions over others.
Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore agrees that the rule favors Roman Catholic confessions, where a priest and a penitent meet privately. ...1