Attorneys argued a case before Minnesota's Supreme Court Wednesday which could affect whether ministers who act as secular counselors are liable for negligence. The hearing stems from the case of a Minnetonka couple who saw a minister for marriage counseling. During that time, the minister became romantically involved with the wife. The husband tried to sue the minister and church for negligent counseling.
In 1997, Steven and Diane Odenthal sought marriage counseling from their minister, Lowell Rideout. Rideout saw the couple together and separately. Rideout administered psychological tests to the couple and advised them their personalities were so different, it would be very difficult for them to have a harmonious marriage.
At the same time during an out-of-town church seminar, Rideout counseled Diane in her motel room. In another session, Rideout asked Diane to list her qualities of a "fantasy man" and then told her he was her fantasy man. The couple separated.
Attorney Katherine Flom told justices that just because the therapist in this case was also a minister should not prevent Steven Odenthal from suing Rideout and the church. Flom said Minister Rideout opened the door to liability after he held himself out to be a secular marriage counselor and psychotherapist. Flom argued as a result the minister should be held to the same standards as any other psychotherapist.
"The harm that was done was in a secular capacity, it was done to the emotional state of Steven Odenthal. It wasn't done to his religious state of mind or his religious practices," Flom said.
But Justice Joan Lancaster asked Flom how the court could establish a line where religious counseling ends and psychotherapy begins.
"Is it possible to maintain that distinction when the counseling is maintaining as Mr. Rideout was maintaining in this case, something along the lines of 'I wanted them to understand God's word and the bible might advise them?'" Lancaster asked.
Flom responded, "If he had stuck to religious counseling, helping them understand how God would view their relationship we would not be here and would not have a claim. The fact of the matter is he did not stick to that, he ventured into psychotherapy," she said.
Justice Paul Anderson pressed the question further. "How do we tell the difference? Sometimes it's hard to draw that line. Can we do that without getting into excessive entanglements?" Anderson asked.
"I think you can," said Flom. "Courts draw lines all the time. That's what legal cases are all about; it's about courts drawing lines and making determinations."
The minister's attorney, Bill Hart, argued that if Odenthal's lawsuit were allowed to go forward, the court would violate the separation between church and state. Because, he said, Steven Odenthal's relationship with the minister was initially based on religion.
"What you're saying is this: the standard of care that's going to apply in your religious relationship is this. It's a secular standard of care and what you're doing is having the government tell the church what is acceptable conduct in the relationships that are formed in the church," Hart said.
But Justice Alan Page wanted to know why church-based counseling was any different than other counseling. "The mere fact that you happen to be a priest or a rabbi or a minister, that mere fact excludes you from that all psychotherapists have to meet?" Page asked.
"When you look at the complaint that the plaintiff started this lawsuit with, he says that his membership entitled him to all religious and parishioner services provided by the church including family and marital counseling," Hart responded. "These were religious and parishioner services that were being provided because the relationship was religious."
Lowell Rideout resigned his position at the request of Minnetonka Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Rideout and Diane Odenthal have married.