The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a state law that deems it a felony for clergy members to have sex with people they're advising on spiritual matters.
The court reversed a state Court of Appeals ruling granting a new trial to Catholic priest Christopher Wenthe. In 2011, Wenthe was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for having sex with a woman when she sought spiritual counseling.
In a two-part ruling, the Supreme Court ruled 4-1 that Minnesota's clergy sexual conduct statute is constitutional, and that religion was not excessively entangled in Wenthe's conviction.
Wenthe was working at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul in 2003 when the woman sought spiritual counseling. Wenthe did not dispute that the two had an 18-month relationship, but denied that it occurred while he was providing spiritual aid and comfort. A judge sentenced Wenthe to a year in jail, but he was released after serving eight months.
The appeals court ruled that Wenthe's conviction was unconstitutional because prosecutors obtained it "based on evidence that was excessively entangled in matters of religion." The court said that evidence "pervaded the entire trial" and improperly shaped the verdict by giving the jury religious instead of secular standards for judging the priest's conduct.
Writing for the majority, Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea rejected Wenthe's argument that the law targets clergy. She reasoned that other professions such as psychotherapy are included in the law under which he was convicted.
Supreme Court Justice Alan Page dissented on both counts, reasoning that the state law is unconstitutional, the Star Tribune reported. Justices Christopher Dietzen and Wilhelmina Wright did not take part in the ruling.
The case was sent back to the Court of Appeals to resolve other issues.
Wenthe's attorney, Paul Engh, said he might ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
"The part of the law that's troubling is that if both parties consent to something, one party's consent is nullified by the operation of law," Engh said. "So you can't ever consent."
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi praised the ruling. In a statement, Choi said it will provide clarity for future prosecutions of similar cases and "ensures that police and prosecution can enforce criminal sexual conduct laws against clergy who use their position of authority and power to sexually prey upon vulnerable victims."
Wenthe remains a Catholic priest on inactive status. In a statement, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said it "respects the ruling and the process, and respects the rule of law."