Woman sues after pastor reveals details of counseling session

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) A woman who said her pastor told their congregation that she had an extramarital affair and was planning to divorce her husband is moving ahead with a lawsuit against the minister.

The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth has ruled that Peggy Penley can sue the Rev. C.L. ''Buddy'' Westbrook, challenging his actions as a counselor under the Texas Licensed Professional Counselor Act.

Penley was a member of Westbrook's independent Crossland Community Bible Church when he involved her and her then-husband in group counseling to help their troubled marriage. However, church bylaws also allow the congregation to discipline members for inappropriate behavior, according to court documents.

''The key issue here is if pastoral counseling is protected by the First Amendment when the counselor in effect wears two hats,'' said Wade Birdwell, Westbrook's attorney.

Penley said she had shared her plans with Westbrook.

Later, Westbrook distributed a letter to the congregation saying Penley had been involved with another man and planned to get divorced, according to documents filed in the case.

The letter stated that the congregation must break ''fellowship with her until the time of repentance and restoration,'' the letter states, adding that church members should not judge the family or gossip about them.

Penley said she was ''stunned'' and ''heartbroken'' by the letter.

A state judge threw out the case two years ago, but it was reinstated by the appeals court last month.

Westbrook's attorneys have argued that his religious beliefs are ''inexorably intertwined'' with his actions and the Texas statutes on counseling imposed an unconstitutional burden on him as a pastor.

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