RULE 505. RELIGIOUS PRIVILEGE
(a) Definitions. As used in this rule:
(1) A "clergyman" is a minister, priest, rabbi, accredited Christian Science practitioner, or other similar functionary of a religious organization, or an individual reasonably believed so to be by the person consulting him.
(2) A communication is "confidential" if made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.
(b) General Rule of Privilege. A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to a clergyman in his professional character as spiritual adviser.
(c) Who May Claim the Privilege. The privilege may be claimed by the person, by his guardian or conservator, or by his personal representative if he is deceased. The person who was the clergyman at the time of the communication is presumed to have authority to claim the privilege but only on behalf of the communicant.
Rule 505 follows the language of Rule 505 of the Uniform Rules of Evidence (1974). It provides the privilege that has been traditionally termed the "priest-penitent" privilege, although it does so in a form that gives the privilege a somewhat wider scope.
Originally, this privilege was granted only to penitents and priests, and then only if the communication was made in confession, an institution of the Catholic Church which is cloaked with absolute secrecy. Gradually, the application of the privilege was broadened; before the promulgation of this rule, North Dakota statutory law protected communications made to a "clergyman or priest," but only if the communications were made in "confession."
Subdivision (a)(1) makes it clear that the privilege applies not only to certain named members of the clergy, but also to "other similar functionar(ies) of a religious organization." It will be the function of the courts to determine whether, in a given case, the status of the spiritual adviser is such that invocation of the privilege is warranted.
Under subdivision (a)(2), a communication may be deemed confidential even though other persons are present, but only if the person's presence is necessary to further the purpose of the communication.
The general rule of privilege contained in subdivision (b) protects from disclosure communications made to a clergyman "in his professional character as spiritual adviser." Thus, although the privilege is no longer confined to the confessional, it must be made to a clergyman acting in his professional capacity.
In keeping with the belief that there may be occasions in which it is appropriate for a guardian or personal representative to claim a privilege, subdivision (c) provides for these parties to make the claim on behalf of the holder. The clergyman may, of course, claim the privilege on behalf of the communicant.
SOURCES: Minutes of Joint Procedure Committee: January 29, 1976, page 7. Rule 505, Uniform Rules of Evidence (1974).