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Exorcising the Clergy Privilege

Posted: 12 Mar 2017  

Christine P. Bartholomew

SUNY Buffalo Law School

Date Written: March 9, 2017


This Article debunks the empirical assumption behind the clergy privilege, the evidentiary rule shielding confidential communications with clergy. For over a century, scholars and the judiciary have assumed generous protection is essential to foster and encourage spiritual relationships. Accepting this premise, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have adopted virtually absolute privilege statutes. To test this assumption, this Article distills data from over 700 decisions — making it the first scholarship to analyze state clergy privilege jurisprudence exhaustively. This review finds a privilege in decline: courts have lost faith in the privilege. More surprisingly, though, so have clergy. For decades, clergy have recast communications to ensure they fall outside testimonial protection — thus challenging how essential confidentiality actually is to spiritual relationships. The Article discusses both why clergy testimony frequently decides the question of privilege and the corresponding query of why some clergy break confidences. This understanding breathes new life into efforts to revise state statutes to reflect the narrowing privilege rather than perpetuate illusory promises of broad protection.

Keywords: Evidence, Privileges, Instrumental Rationale, Clergy Privilege, Religion

Suggested Citation

Bartholomew, Christine P., Exorcising the Clergy Privilege (March 9, 2017). Virginia Law Review, Vol. 103, 2017; University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-44. Available at SSRN:

Christine P. Bartholomew (Contact Author)

SUNY Buffalo Law School ( email )

School of Law
528 O'Brian Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
United States

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