Nov. 24, 2019
By Michael Betzold
After militant homophobes in the Westboro Baptist Church began picketing funerals of gay people in the 1990s, Michigan was among many states to make it illegal to disrupt a funeral.
Now, in a case that has made headlines nationwide, a Toledo law firm representing a grieving mother hopes to persuade a Wayne County jury that a priest conducting a funeral can be liable for deliberately mishandling it.
“It was an ambush,” says attorney Wesley Merillat – characterizing how Fr. Don LaCuesta sabotaged Maison Hullibarger’s funeral mass last December at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance, Mich. LaCuesta had agreed earlier in a meeting with the parents to deliver a message of love and kindness to celebrate their son’s life, but the priest somehow found out the death was a suicide.
His homily revealing that fact amounted to a “heartless condemnation” of the young man, according to the lawsuit. The sermon about the eternal damnation of Maison’s soul continued even after the deceased’s father approached the pulpit and implored him to stop.
It’s a potentially groundbreaking case on the limits of the First Amendment and what might constitute “hate speech.” David Clohessy, a national leader of SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), knows of no prior lawsuit challenging what a priest can say in a sermon. After decades of scandal stemming from physical clerical abuse, a case raising the issue of verbal abuse in the guise of spiritual instruction is new territory for the church.
Does state law apply?
In response to the Westboro protests, a Michigan statute makes it a felony to “make any statement … that causes a breach of the peace” at a funeral. How that criminal statute might affect this civil case remains to be seen.
Also named as a defendant in the civil action is the Archdiocese of Detroit. For almost a year, Archbishop Allen Vigneron has refused to remove LaCuesta from his post at Mount Carmel – and won’t say why. Vigneron has unrestricted power to move priests to different parish assignments – and often exercises it. But he allegedly ended a meeting with Hullibarger’s parents shortly after the funeral last December, saying he wouldn’t discuss LaCuesta. He then announced the priest wouldn’t conduct any more funerals until he got more instruction on how to handle them.
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