The Michigan Court of Appeals has recently shot down a challenge to Michigan’s long-recognized clergy-congregant privilege. The court ruled that the presence of the minor congregant’s mother during communications did not waive the privilege and that it did not matter that the clergy member had initiated communications rather than the congregant.
On May 8, the Court of Appeals released its opinion in People v. Bragg stating that certain communications made by a teenager to his pastor were privileged and inadmissible in court. The court held that when communications of this sort are being considered for privilege, the most important questions will focus on the actual communication and whether it was made as part of the clergy’s spiritual role. The court rejected the prosecution’s assertions that the presence of the minor congregant’s mother waived the privilege and that the privilege did not apply since the pastor initiated the communication.
The clergy-congregant privilege issue arose out of a criminal sexual assault case. The defendant was accused of assaulting a young cousin. Upon hearing of the alleged events, the pastor asked his church secretary, who also happened to be the defendant’s mother, to arrange a meeting between the pastor and the defendant. It was alleged that the defendant confessed to the crimes while meeting with the pastor. The defendant’s mother was also present for the meeting.
During the preliminary hearing at the district court level, the prosecution called the pastor to testify regarding his conversation with the defendant. The district court judge that allowed the initial testimony said that he did not think that the communication at issue fell within the religious “definition” of a confession, and thus should not be privileged. At the circuit court, the judge made it a priority to say that the communications between the pastor and defendant were privileged under MCL 727.5a(2) and should not have been admitted in court. The court of appeals then upheld the ruling of the circuit court in regard to the admissibility of the pastor’s testimony.
The Court of Appeals held that MCL 757.5a(2) was the appropriate source of the clergy-communicant privilege, and emphasized the importance of the pastor acting in his role as a pastor when the communications were made. Had the pastor been speaking to the defendant as a friend or a relative, it is likely that the communication would not have been protected by the privilege.
This ruling by the Court of Appeals is significant in that it affects every religious institution and clergy member in Michigan. This ruling should serve as a reinforcement of the privilege of clergy to speak to congregants in their role as clergy without fear of being called into court to testify about the conversations. The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC provide comprehensive legal services to religious institutions of all faiths. For more information about legal matters regarding religious institutions, please feel free to contact us.