A public school in California brings in a lesbian to speak to the students about her homosexuality. Parents, finding out about it after the fact, ask the school to reveal to them what was said. The school claims that it need not inform the parents as to what transpired in their children’s classes. Why? Because the speaker in question is a minister, hence her presentations at the school are confidential communications under the clergy-penitent privilege.

The Public Justice Institute, suing the school district to force it to answer the parents’ questions, finds this invocation of ministerial confidentiality astonishing.

Astonishing would be one word. Cynical would be another. Confidentiality requirements and privileges exist in many professional, contractual, and institutional relationships, and are of many kinds and degrees. But it would seem that they work largely to protect individuals in the chosen course of relationships into which they have entered by their own volition. The clergy-penitent relationship is one of these. But how might it apply here? Does the government-run school claim that its captive population of students is in a pastoral relationship with this (or every?) person of the cloth who comes on campus? And if the students are not the penitent, who is? Does the government-run school claim for itself such a relationship? For an example of an untoward entanglement of church and state, the notion of a public high school engaging in confidential communication with its pastor is hard to beat.

Maybe the word is not cynical but clownish. The school administrators, retreating from the press of parental inquiries, feel a wall at their backs and decide to scramble up and over it, maybe without looking too closely, anxious to put at least some sort of barrier between themselves and the taxpayers. Oops. The wall they’ve hopped over turns out to be the famous wall of separation between church and state. Apparently it is lower than we had thought.

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