Supreme Court considers reach of Consumer Credit and Protection Act in Catholic Diocese case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court have two questions to answer following arguments on a case out of Wood County involving state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston.

At the heart of the lawsuit is Morrisey’s contention that the Diocese failed to protect children from sexual abusers by not disclosing credible accusations of abuse against members of the clergy prior to the past few years.

Specifically, the claim is that, going forward, when the Diocese promotes educational and recreational services to the public, it should be meeting requirements in the Consumer Credit and Protection Act (CCPA).

“The Diocese can do whatever it wants to when it comes to particular safety practices or training or background checks,” said Lindsay See, solicitor general.

“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 its 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.”

James Gardill, an attorney for the diocese, disputed that.

“This case is an unprecedented misapplication of the CCPA (Consumer Credit and Protection Act) and an extraordinary intrusion and prior restraint on free exercise,” Gardill said.

Wood County Circuit Judge J.D. Beane previously dismissed the case, at the request of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, before issuing a stay on that ruling pending answers from the state Supreme Court to the two questions which were argued Tuesday.

1. Do the provisions of Article 6 of the Consumer Credit and Protection Act, respecting unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices, apply to religious institutions in connection with their sale or advertisement of educational or recreational services?

2. Does the cumulative impact of the entire relationship between church and state arising from the attorney general’s application of the Act constitute an excessive entanglement of church and state prohibited by the constitutions of the United States and the State of West Virginia?

As MetroNews previously reported, Judge Beane was a “no” on Question 1 and a “yes” on Question 2 when the questions were initially submitted to the state Supreme Court last fall.

“The Court is taking up threshold legal questions with implications far beyond this particular complaint,” See said.

“What matters now is that the CCPA means what it says when it says that unfair, deceptive practices in the conduct and advertising of educational and recreational services are prohibited.”

Gardill urged the state Supreme Court to proceed carefully.

“We’re talking about the state using the Consumer Credit and Protection Act, which is designed for ordinary cash and credit transactions and to avoid excessive terms, unfair terms in agreements — loan agreements and otherwise — to enforce a church policy,” he said.

“They’re going to interpret how we comply with our own policy. It’s extraordinary.”

Judge Beane saw potential issues with applying the Consumer Credit and Protection Act potentially to other entities.

“The list is inexhaustible; the powers of the Attorney General almost boundless and effectively would grant his office profound influence over every aspect of the state’s economy,” Beane wrote.

“It is inconceivable that this was the Legislature’s intent in enacting the Consumer Credit and Protection Act.”

Court officials said Justice Margaret Workman, who was not physically present for Tuesday’s arguments, was monitoring arguments online and would participate in the court decision on the questions which was expected later this year.

MetroNews Statewide Correspondent Brad McElhinny contributed to this story.

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