Suresh Garimella’s neutron bomb approach to the humanities notwithstanding, sometimes a professor of religion comes in very handy. Take Friday, March 3 for example. On that day, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on S.16, a bill that would require clergy to report cases of child abuse and neglect even if they learned of such crimes in confidence while acting as a spiritual advisor. Like, say, a Catholic priest hearing confession, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Lined up to testify were not one, not two, but three Catholics, including Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Diocese of Burlington. You can guess what they had to say: Removing the confessional exemption would force priests to choose between state law and canon law. It would infringe on Catholics’ First Amendment right to free expression of religion.
After all of that, the committee heard from Tom Borchert, chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Vermont. And boy, did his testimony make my ears perk up.
The two big takeaways: First, the “spiritual advisor” exemption describes one and only one religious practice: Catholic confession. Second, the law as currently written creates a First Amendment issue on its own.Continue reading