The Guinn Case

In 1989, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a ruling that remains the definitive analysis on the discipline of church members. Guinn v. Church of Christ, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla. 1989). The court reached the following conclusions:

  • The discipline of church members (i.e., persons who have not withdrawn from membership) is a constitutionally protected right of churches.
  • Discipline of persons who have effectively withdrawn their church membership is not a constitutionally protected activity, and churches that engage in such conduct can be sued under existing theories of tort law.
  • The constitutional right of a church member to withdraw from church membership is protected by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom unless a member has waived that right. A church wishing to restrict the right of disciplined members to withdraw must obtain a voluntary and knowing waiver by present and prospective members of their constitutional right to withdraw. How can this be done? One approach would be for a church to adopt a provision in its bylaws preventing members from withdrawing if they are currently being disciplined by the church. Obviously, the disciplinary procedure must be carefully specified in the church bylaws so there is no doubt whether the disciplinary process has been initiated with respect to a member. Most courts have held that members are "on notice" of all of the provisions in the church bylaws, and consent to be bound by them when they become members. As a result, the act of becoming a member of a church with such a provision in its bylaws may well constitute an effective waiver of a member's right to withdraw (if the disciplinary process has begun).

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Posted: July 1, 2009
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