Court dismisses lawsuit over priest’s homily protected by First Amendment

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Michigan appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit against a priest in the Detroit Archdiocese who emphasized suicide in the 2018 funeral homily for an 18-year-old who took his own life.

The suit, against the priest, the parish and the archdiocese, was filed by Linda Hullibarger, mother of Maison Hullibarger, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and other claims against Father Don LaCuesta, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Temperance, Michigan.

The court, in its 3-0 decision July 8, said it agreed with the previous decision handed down by a lower court and emphasized the suit was not one for the court to take up because the priest’s comments were protected by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment regarding religion.

Specifically, the judges said the priest’s conduct was protected by “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” or a long-held constitutional principle that prohibits a court from resolving an inherently religious dispute.

In the lawsuit, Hullibarger claimed the priest described her son’s suicide as a “secular crime” and a “sin against God with dire eternal consequences.” According to court documents, the news of her son’s cause of death had initially not been made public and many learned about it at the funeral.

In the opinion, signed by the three judges, they said they could not “pass judgment” on the contents of the priest’s sermon and therefore “all of the plaintiff’s claims necessarily fail.”

The opinion also said that for the court to find the priest’s comments “extreme” or “outrageous” would require the judges to “evaluate Catholic philosophy and doctrine regarding suicide and whether Father LaCuesta complied with it.” The opinion also reemphasized that “courts should not evaluate sermons delivered at religious services.”

The judges, quoting from an opinion by the state’s Supreme Court, added that it would be “inconsistent with complete and untrammeled religious liberty” for civil courts to “enter into a consideration of church doctrine or church discipline.”

The teenager’s funeral in December 2018 gained widespread media attention after the parents spoke about what happened with reporters. Days later, the priest apologized to parishioners and his remarks were released by the Detroit Archdiocese along with its own apology.

“As with any funeral, it was my intent to serve this family in their time of grief, but I fell well short of providing them the comfort they so desperately needed. Instead, I added to their pain. I deeply regret that, and I am sorry,” Father LaCuesta said.

The archdiocese said at the time it regretted that one of its parish priests “was unable to bring comfort to a grieving family at the recent funeral of their beloved son.”

It added that what happened made an unbearable situation “even more difficult” and said Father LaCuesta would no longer be preaching at funerals and would have all other homilies reviewed by a priest mentor.

The priest’s homily was also released by the archdiocese with names redacted. The text showed that the priest did not say, as some media reports had indicated, that the teen’s death would prevent him from going to heaven.

The priest focused on suicide and God’s mercy without mentioning any details about Hullibarger, who had been a freshman at the University of Toledo, Ohio, studying criminal justice, and was a brother to five siblings who loved football, camping and his mom’s cooking.

His parents told reporters in 2018 they met with the priest days before the funeral to tell him about their son, stressing they wanted him to talk about his life — how he had lived, not how he had died.

The homily mentioned “hope in eternity even for those who take their own lives.” It also said “taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us. Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please.”

The priest also repeated what he said earlier in the homily: “Nothing — not even suicide — can separate us from the unconditional love of God.” But by that point Maison’s father, Jeff Hullibarger, frustrated with the repeated message of suicide, had already gone to the pulpit pleading with the priest to stop.

Jeff and Linda Hullibarger said they spoke to the media about what happened so that something similar wouldn’t happen to other families. They also asked the archdiocese to remove Father LaCuesta as their parish pastor.

The priest, who is still pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, said in a message to parishioners soon after this happened that he knew some were calling for his removal from the parish or from ministry altogether.

“I understand the pain behind these calls. It is my preference to stay and to serve the parish community I love so much,” he said.

He also pledged to spend time thinking about how he could have “missed the mark so completely in this case.”

“Many of us know how painful it is when you unintentionally hurt somebody you are trying to help,” he added. “I ask you to please join me in praying for the family involved, that they may find healing and comfort during this difficult time.”

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim


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