• Keypoint 4-09. Clergy who divert church funds to their personal use face possible criminal and civil liability.
The Supreme Court of North Dakota ruled that the first amendment did not prevent a priest from being prosecuted for embezzlement of church funds. The priest served as pastor of a local Roman Catholic church. The state charged that he "knowingly took and exercised unauthorized control over money in excess of $100,000" belonging to the church and spent the money on personal items such as the payment of personal credit cards, payments to personal stock brokers, payments for unauthorized personal bills, payments for sporting equipment, payments to relatives, and payments for fishing trips, all with intent to deprive his church of the money. The priest asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that it would involve "excessive entanglement" in religious affairs in violation of the first amendment's nonestablishment of religion clause. A trial court agreed with the priest, and dismissed the case. It concluded that finding the priest guilty of embezzlement would require a probing investigation into his authority over church funds, which would constitute prohibited "excessive entanglement" between church and state. The state supreme court reversed this ruling, and ruled that the prosecution of the priest for embezzlement would not violate the first amendment. The court conceded that the civil courts cannot resolve church disputes involving matters of doctrine or polity, and quoted from a number of United States Supreme Court rulings, including the following: