EPPC Scholar Encourages Washington State to Pass Law that Respects the Seal of the Confessional

February 14, 2024

On February 12, Fellow Eric N. Kniffin of the HHS Accountability Project offered public comment to the Washington State House Human Services, Youth & Early Learning Committee in favor of Senate Bill 6298. The bill would add clergy to the State’s list of mandatory reporters while recognizing a narrow exemption that honors the clergy-penitent privilege.

Last year, Kniffin submitted a detailed memorandum to the same committee, explaining why another bill that explicitly overrode the clergy-penitent privilege was unwarranted, unprecedented, and unconstitutional. He also offered public testimony against the bill, which was abandoned at the end of the 2023 legislative session.

Kniffin’s public comment reads in part:

Last year, I submitted a public comment to the Legislature along with an extensive memorandum explaining why Substitute House Bill 1098, which would have added clergy as mandatory reporters without recognizing the clergy-penitent privilege, was a bad bill. I explained that attempting to invade the clergy-penitent privilege would not improve child safety, that SHB 1098 was out of step with other state laws, and that the bill, if passed into law, would be held constitutional.

I am heartened to see that this year the Washington State Legislature has chosen a different path. SB 6298 proposes to make two important changes to Washington’s mandatory reporter law that reflect recommendations I made last year.

First, SB 6298 would amend RCW 26.44.020 by adding members of the clergy to the State’s list of mandatory reporters for child abuse and neglect. This is a good change that would bring Washington into line with the majority of other states and aligns with the Catholic Church’s own policies.

Second, SB 6298 respects religious liberty by amending RCW 26.44.030 with a narrowly crafted exemption for the penitential communication privilege. . . . The United States Constitution and the Washington State Constitution require government to respect religious liberty. But the right to religious liberty is not limitless. SB 6298 strikes a careful balance by honoring the confidentiality of penitential communications but carefully defining this right. Legislators should proceed with confidence that courts will honor and enforce this balance.

For more information on Eric Kniffin’s work defending the clergy-penitent privilege, see his 2023 First Things article and his interview on the Crown and Crozier podcast.

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