Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
First Amendment Doesn't Keep Court from Resolving Defamation Claims
Ohio court not barred on grounds that resolution won't change church doctrine or governance.
Key point 6-10.1. According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church's discipline of a member since the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding who are members in good standing of a church.
Key point 6-10.2. According to the minority view, the civil courts may engage in "marginal review" of disputes involving the discipline of a church member, in a few limited circumstances if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity. For example, a few courts have been willing to review membership dismissals in one or more of the following limited circumstances: (1) the church interfered with a member's civil, contract, or property rights; (2) the disciplining body lacked authority to act; (3) the church failed to comply with its governing documents; (4) the church's decision was based on fraud or collusion; or (5) interpretation of contested terminology in the church's governing documents.

An Ohio court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a former member's claims of defamation and emotional distress since a resolution of these claims would not implicate church doctrine or governance. A woman in her eighties (the "plaintiff") was a 50-year member of a church. In 2010, following the church's selection of a new pastor, the plaintiff began to disagree with the direction of the church. She communicated her disagreement over various matters, including church doctrine, governance, and finances, with other church members, administrative staff, and the pastor.

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