• Key point. The civil courts are without authority to review internal church decisions to discipline or dismiss a member.
• Key point. Some courts are willing to engage in "marginal review" of church membership decisions for the limited purpose of deciding if the proper body made the decision.
• Key point. Statements made in the context of a church membership meeting addressing the discipline of a member ordinarily cannot be defamatory.
An Ohio court ruled that it had no authority to review a church's decision to dismiss a member. The court also ruled that it could not review the dismissed member's defamation claim, and that a state nonprofit corporation law did not provide the dismissed member with any basis for suing the church. Here are the facts of this case: A church member sought access to his church's financial records. When church leaders denied this request, the member filed a lawsuit in which he asked a court to order the church to turn over the records. Following the filing of this lawsuit, church leaders attempted to dismiss the member from church membership. The member filed another lawsuit against his church, claiming that the attempt to dismiss him was in violation of the church's bylaws; caused severe emotional distress; was defamatory. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was an ecclesiastical dispute over which it had no jurisdiction. The ousted member appealed.
Civil court review of membership disputes
A state appeals court upheld the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit. It observed: