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Minnesota high court reinstates lawsuit against former minister

By The Associated Press


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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a lower court and ruled that a lawsuit over a minister's marriage counseling doesn't intrude on the constitutional separation of church and state.

The unanimous decision Aug. 15 allows Steven Odenthal to pursue a negligence claim against Lowell Rideout and possibly the Minnesota Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists.

But some say the decision has a much broader implication.

"It sends a signal of state regulation of religious ministries," said Bill Hart, Rideout's attorney. "It's going to tell ministers how to minister."

"They opened a Pandora's Box," said Patrick Schiltz, an associate dean at the University of St. Thomas Law School who studies lawsuits involving religion. "They have put clergy of Minnesota at risk of being sued for what clergy do most of the day: That is to provide help and counsel to those who are troubled.

"I don't know of any state anywhere that comes anywhere near the degree of intrusion this decision permits or sanctions."

The case stems from marital advice Odenthal and his wife, Diane, received over a few years from Rideout, their minister at Minnetonka Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

According to court documents, Rideout had a romantic interest in Diane Odenthal and at one point told the couple they weren't compatible based on a personality test he performed. The Odenthals eventually divorced. Rideout divorced his wife and later married Diane Odenthal. He was forced to resign his ministry largely because of the relationship.

In the lawsuit, Odenthal argued that Rideout breached confidentiality, overstepped counseling relationship boundaries and violated church doctrine limits on the counseling a minister may provide.

The last point was at the heart of the Supreme Court decision. Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz wrote that Rideout went beyond offering spiritual guidance and delved into psychotherapy.

"In this case," Blatz wrote, "the standards of conduct for those providing mental health services apply to all who meet the definition of unlicensed mental health practitioner, regardless of whether the relationship is one of clergy and church member."

A Hennepin County judge came to a similar conclusion. But a 2-1 Court of Appeals decision reversed the district court, claiming the lawsuit excessively entangled church and state under the state and federal constitutions.

The Aug. 15 ruling means Odenthal's claim against Rideout can now go to trial. But the Supreme Court also ordered the appeals court to decide if the Minnesota Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, which employed Rideout at the time, can be held liable in any way.

Odenthal's attorney, Ronald Meshbesher, said the ruling is precedent setting.

"We don't think the minister should be beyond the law simply because he was clothed in clerical garb," Meshbesher said. "The churches do not have blanket immunity from these kind of lawsuits when they act in secular ways."

Hart said an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, although no decisions have been made.


High court won't get involved in clergy malpractice case
Meanwhile, justices refuse to consider Massachusetts town's crèche ban or to hear case involving Nashville, Tenn., adult-entertainment law.  05.14.02