As we went to press on Tuesday, we learned that the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled that a rabbi cannot be sued for having disclosed confidential information that a congregant gives him in a counselling session if the rabbi believes that religious law requires the disclosure.
At issue was whether a New York law which establishes the so-called “priest-penitent” privilege ? which protects a clergyman from having to testify in court as to information imparted to him in his official capacity ? could be invoked by the congregant if the clergyman disclosed the information outside of court because he believed religious law required the disclosure. According to court documents, the particular information bore directly on some fundamentals of the marital relationship which the rabbi believed he had an obligation under Jewish law to disclose.
The unanimous decision of the court was that under these circumstances a lawsuit would require a secular court to decide the rabbi's obligations under Jewish law ? something secular courts could not do consistent with the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause.
A spokesman for The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), hailed the decision one that will facilitate the willingness of rabbis to engage in pastoral counselling in accordance with Jewish law without fear of being sued for following its requirements. COLPA filed a brief in the case on behalf of 7 national Orthodox Jewish organizations urging the result reached by the court. The brief was written by noted constitutional lawyer, Nathan Lewin.
The decision is an important one and we will have more to say next week.