CHARLESTON — The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on whether a consumer protection lawsuit by the state Attorney General’s Office can move forward against West Virginia’s only Roman Catholic diocese.
At the heart of the issue: Whether the lawsuit filed by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office under the Consumer Credit and Protection Act is a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Wood County Judge J.D. Beane, who’s presiding over the case at the circuit court level, has ruled Morrisey’s lawsuit opens too much potential for violation of separation of church and state. However, Beane stayed his order, granting the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese’s motion to dismiss Morrisey’s lawsuit and sent the matter to the state Supreme Court as a certified question.
Morrisey filed the consumer protection action against the Diocese in early 2019, alleging misleading and false claims by the church organization over the safety of its private school educational programs and camps.
The lawsuit contends the Diocese had a duty to note past instances of sexual crimes and misconduct by priests it had hired. The filing also questions the commitment of the Diocese to ferret out problem hires through background checks, and it indicates that appropriate action wasn’t always taken, even when wrongdoing was discovered.
Morrisey’s office, through Solicitor General Lindsay See, Senior Deputy Attorney General Douglas Buffington II and Assistant Solicitor General John Masslon II, says the justices can craft a ruling that protects the separation of church and state, but allows the lawsuit to move forward.
See argued the case Tuesday on behalf of Morrisey.
“The core of this claim is that the Diocese can do whatever it wants to when it comes to particular safety practices or training or background checks,” See said. “But, as soon as it includes some of those things as a factual matter in its advertisements to the general public when it’s selling it services, it just has to be true.
“If the Diocese says that everyone must pass a background check, that has to be a true fact. That’s what the Consumer Protection Act is about. It’s not saying that the Diocese has to conduct background checks or any particular training,” See said.
“It’s saying that (if) it chooses to use that as a basis to try to distinguish itself from the competition, that has to be accurate. And that’s the same thing that we see in a number of false advertising or failure-to-warn cases across the state, so there’s nothing new,” See said.
The state might seek an order permanently enjoining similar action from the Diocese “going forward,” or might request civil penalties or restitution if it prevails, See noted.
See added that the “vast majority of remedies that are available in this case, and in all CCPA cases, don’t raise the concerns at issue here. But, the…