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Family loses legal appeal after priest criticizes deceased teen during funeral

by Premier Journalist

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that the First Amendment protects a priest's decision to criticize a teenager's suicide.

In 2019, 18-year-old Maison Hulliberger took his own life. The student's funeral attracted many attendees, all of whom expected an uplifting religious service and expressions of fondness for the straight-A student.

However, the overseeing priest, Father Don LaCuesta, decided to tell the mourners that suicide was wrong, consistently emphasizing that Hulliberger's decision was implicitly bad. Fr LaCuesta's choice of words were contrary to what the Hulliberger family had requested, as they had asked the Father not to refer to Maison's death as a suicide. In a local interview, Maison's father claims Fr LaCuesta was "up there condemning our son, pretty much calling him a sinner. He wondered if he repented enough to make it to heaven." 

The tone of Fr LaCuesta angered the family, leading them to file a lawsuit against him, the Archdiocese of Detroit and his parish. The mother, Linda Hullibarger, requested damages for any pain and suffering Fr LaCuesta's words may have caused alongside punitive damages that would help prevent "outrageous conduct from happening again."

In a public statement, the archdiocese regretted that an "unbearable situation was made even more difficult" through Fr LaCuesta's remarks.

Both the local courts and appeals courts upheld Fr LaCuesta's rights, proclaiming that the First Amendment protected the pastoral worker from being penalized for his sermon. In a 3-0 appeals decision, the Appeals judges stated that "The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine protected Father LaCuesta's conduct. As such, we cannot pass judgment on the content of his sermon. Consequently, all of the plaintiff's claims necessarily fail."

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