Some may remember this story from a couple years back, about a family that was upset at the homily delivered at the funeral for their son, who had taken his own life. The mother sued:
Mrs. Hullibarger and her husband met with Father LaCuesta to plan the funeral service for their son Maison. During this meeting, the Hullibargers made clear that they wanted Father LaCuesta to deliver a positive, uplifting and loving message that celebrated the life of their son. Mrs. Hullibarger says they asked “for it to be uplifting, to talk about show[ing] kindness to one another, to be there for one another, just to love one another, to lift people up—that’s what we asked for. That was so important to us, there’s so much sadness.” However, the lawsuit claims that is not the funeral service Father LaCuesta delivered on December 8, 2018.
Instead of adhering to the family’s wishes, the lawsuit alleges that Father LaCuesta turned the homily into a message regarding suicide, questioning whether the Hullibarger’s son would be admitted into heaven. What made this more shocking to the family was that the Hullibargers had not disclosed, revealed, or discussed the nature of Maison’s death to Father LaCuesta or the community. As Mrs. Hullibarger explains, “[A]t our own child’s funeral, we were taken down yet again when it was a place that we were supposed to be lifted up. And we had no idea, no indication that was going to happen.”
Now, an update:
A Michigan appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit against a priest in the Detroit Archdiocese who emphasized suicide in the 2018 funeral homily for an 18-year-old who took his own life.
The suit, against the priest, the parish and the archdiocese, was filed by Linda Hullibarger, mother of Maison Hullibarger, for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and other claims against Father Don LaCuesta, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Temperance, Michigan.
The court, in its 3-0 decision July 8, said it agreed with the previous decision handed down by a lower court and emphasized the suit was not one for the court to take up because the priest’s comments were protected by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment regarding religion.
Specifically, the judges said the priest’s conduct was protected by “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” or a long-held constitutional principle that prohibits a court from resolving an inherently religious dispute.
In the lawsuit, Hullibarger claimed the priest described her son’s suicide as a “secular crime” and a “sin against God with dire eternal consequences.” According to court documents, the news of her son’s cause of death had initially not been made public and many learned about it at the funeral.
In the opinion, signed by the three judges, they said they could not “pass judgment” on the contents of the priest’s sermon and therefore “all of the plaintiff’s claims necessarily fail.”
The opinion also said that for the court to find the priest’s comments “extreme” or “outrageous” would require the judges to “evaluate Catholic philosophy and doctrine regarding suicide and whether Father LaCuesta complied with it.” The opinion also reemphasized that “courts should not evaluate sermons delivered at religious services.”