Scarlet letter: Whom do you trust to counsel you for personal problems, a minister or a licensed counselor? How about a pastor who is also a licensed counselor? Sorry, trick question. The right answer is don't trust anyone.
Too bad Peggy Lee Penley wasn't a member of the Church of Buzzery, otherwise she might have avoided being part of Penley vs. Westbrook, which the Texas Supreme Court last week agreed to hear. Depending on which side you ask, the case's outcome could either help protect the public from bad counselors who hide behind religion or lead to gross government infringement on religious freedom.
Penley was a member of Crossland Community Bible Church in Fort Worth who turned to Pastor C.L. "Buddy" Westbrook Jr. for help with marital problems. Sometimes they met in paid counseling sessions (Westbrook is a state-licensed counselor); later meetings were more pastoral and took place at his home. In any event, Penley divorced, took up with another man and left the church. But the CCBC has clear rules about how it deals with straying sheep: It casts them out. Sounds harsh, but it has a biblical basis, and the goal is to convince sinning members to repent. Westbrook helped start the discipline against Penley.
Peggy Lee Penley
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Was Westbrook a bad marriage counselor or a good shepherd?
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, which represents Westbrook, says the courts' rule for dealing with internal church matters is simple: Stay out of them. Court meddling in church discipline threatens our right to practice religion and associate with whom we please. If Penley wins, "any pastor who gets extra training [as a counselor] waives their First Amendment rights," Shackelford says.
Not quite, says Darrell Keith, Penley's lawyer. Get the training and get the license. But if you act as a professional in secular counseling, then follow the rules: Don't blab. "The law for professionals overall is very clear that no matter how many hats...an individual wears in his various situations, the professional has a duty of reasonable care to his or her clients." A jury should decide whether Westbrook was negligent, he says, though the trial judge disagreed.
This is just the sort of situation that arises when people do foolish things like believe in God or trust one another. Here at the Church of Buzzery, we follow much simpler rules: Shut up and mind your own business.