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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Clergy sex assault statute ruled valid

An evenly divided Minnesota Supreme Court today left in place a decision upholding as facially valid Minnesota’s clergy criminal assault statute.

The case -- State v. Bussmann -- involved the prosecution of a Catholic priest who had sexual relationships with two women at his parish. The woman later complained that the priest had violated a state law making it a crime for a clergy member to have sex with a person who is seeking or receiving “religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private.” (Minn. Stat. sec. 609.344, subd. 1(l)(ii).)

The Court of Appeals concluded that the law did not facially violate the Establishment Clause, a decision with which three of the six justices hearing the case concurred. (Justice Lorie Gildea took no part in the decision.) Because the high court could not reach a majority consensus on this issue, the Court of Appeals’ ruling stands.

However, the Supreme Court nonetheless reversed the priest’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. Looking at the particular facts of the case, the court concluded that the admission of extensive evidence regarding religious doctrine and church policies and practices caused the entanglement of religion with the verdict and conviction. Thus, on an as applied basis, the Establishment Clause had been violated in this case.

Chief Justice Russell Anderson dissented on this point, arguing that the admission of the evidence did not violate the Establishment Clause and did not warrant the granting of a new trial.

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