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Court Intervention in Church Legal Disputes

If religious doctrine is involved, courts typically won't intervene in governance disputes.

Key point 6-12.4. Most courts refuse to intervene in church disputes concerning the validity of a membership meeting that was not conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements specified in the church's governing documents. However, some courts are willing to intervene in such disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.

A Texas appeals court ruled that it was barred by the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" from resolving a lawsuit brought by former church members alleging that the church failed to follow its bylaws in various respects. Former members of a church (the "plaintiffs") sued the church and its trustees (the "defendants") alleging that they breached their obligations to the plaintiffs, as members of the church, by failing to conduct elections for trustees; improperly conducting general meetings without a quorum; adopting amendments to the bylaws in violation of those bylaws; disenfranchising numerous members of the church who were critical of the trustees' policies and procedures; refusing to allow these disenfranchised members to participate in meetings and refusing to provide them copies of church documents; establishing a mandatory monthly membership fee of $30; refusing to honor the members' petitions to call special meetings or place matters on the agenda for other meetings; and altering the trustee-nomination procedure and committee-appointment process so that only persons appointed by them could be eligible for appointment.

The plaintiffs asked the court for a declaration that the amended bylaws were of no effect, all disenfranchised members would be restored to full rights as members, and the $30 membership fee invalidated.

The defendants claimed that the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" applied to divest the court of jurisdiction to hear the plaintiffs' claims. The trial court agreed with the defendants and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs appealed on the ground that a resolution of their claims was not barred by the First Amendment or the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine since a civil court could resolve all of the claims using "neutral principles of law" requiring no inquiring into church doctrine.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court's ruling dismissing the case. It noted that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is based on the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause, which prohibits "governmental action that burdens the free exercise of religion by encroaching on a church's ability to manage its internal affairs." However, the court acknowledged that the civil courts have the authority to resolve "purely secular disputes that do not require an inquiry into religious doctrine."

The court noted that the plaintiffs' primary argument was that the church's bylaws were changed inappropriately. It noted that "the church's failure to follow its bylaws on a matter of internal governance is a matter of internal church governance and ecclesiastical concerns, and the courts may not interfere with that decision." The court concluded:

The neutral principles of law approach does not apply here because the plaintiffs complain about matters of internal church governance. The disputes in this case do not involve contract, property, or civil rights. Instead, the plaintiffs contend that the trustees failed to comply with the bylaws when they allegedly called for elections, conducted meetings, and amended the bylaws; disenfranchised members; refused to allow those disenfranchised members to participate in meetings; refused to provide disenfranchised members copies of church documents; and established a mandatory monthly membership fee. Whether a church failed to "follow its bylaws on a matter of internal governance is also a matter of internal church governance and ecclesiastical concerns," and we may not interfere with that decision.

Nor do courts have jurisdiction to decide who may or may not be members of the church. We conclude that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the plaintiffs' claims because they involve matters of internal church governance.

What This Means For Churches:

All courts would agree that they are prohibited by the First Amendment from resolving any internal church dispute requiring an interpretation of church doctrine or polity. However, the courts interpret doctrine and polity differently. Some courts, such as this one, interpret the concepts of doctrine and polity broadly to include a church's adherence to its bylaws on matters of internal church governance. But other courts have taken a narrower view of doctrine and polity and have been willing to resolve some disputes involving church governance, so long as no inquiring into doctrine or polity is involved. 2011 WL 2685969 (Tex. App. 2011).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2012.

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  • July 1, 2012

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