A growing number of lawsuits against churches and clergy began to be filed in the 1980s, where plaintiffs sued churches as they might sue a corporation or a government agency. Those lawsuits alleged CLERGY MALPRACTICE. In them, the plaintiffs claimed that clergy members should be legally held to a higher standard of conduct than ordinary citizens should, in the same way as other professionals in positions of trust, such as doctors or lawyers. The majority of courts have ruled that standards of clergy conduct would violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state. However, some courts have accepted narrower claims accusing individual clergy members of inflicting emotional distress or breaching their fiduciary duty.
In Nally v. Grace Community Church of the Valley, 763 P.2d 948 (Cal. 1988), the California Supreme Court in 1988 rejected a lawsuit accusing the pastors of a Protestant church in Los Angeles of negligence for failing to prevent the 1979 suicide of a 24-year-old man who was a church member. The lawsuit, brought by his parents, argued that the pastors should have referred him to a professional counselor when they learned he had suicidal tendencies.
In 2001, the Utah Supreme Court unanimously upheld the dismissal of Franco v. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saitns, 21 P.3d 19 (Utah 2001). In that case, Lynette Franco sued the MORMON CHURCH for negligence for telling her to forgive and forget a 1986 incident in which she claimed to have been the victim of child rape at the hands of another church member. Lawyers for Franco had initially included an allegation of clergy misconduct in the lawsuit, but later dropped it, focusing instead on FRAUD, negligence and infliction of distress. But the court rejected it nevertheless, ruling that setting a standard for clergy conduct would embroil the courts in establishing the training, skill and standards applicable for members of the clergy in this state in a diversity of religions professing widely varying beliefs. The justices, all Mormons, were unanimous in their ruling.