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Michigan Court Rules ‘Ecclesiastical Abstention’ Bars It from Resolving Church Dispute by Interpreting Polity
Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.

A Michigan court ruled that the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" prevented it from resolving claims arising from a pastor's embezzlement of a large sum of church funds that would involve inquiries into church doctrine or polity. A church's board of deacons became aware that the pastor of their church had engaged in numerous financial irregularities. When confronted, the pastor admitted that on numerous occasions he gave himself raises, used church credit cards for nonchurch purposes, and paid himself monetary honorariums, all without the board's approval or authorization.

The board hired a CPA firm to examine the church finances. During a Sunday morning worship service, the board informed the congregation of the status of the investigation of both the pastor and the church finances. Following this disclosure, the congregation began to split into factions that either supported or opposed the pastor's continuing employment.

The CPA firm eventually released a preliminary report demonstrating that between 2008 and 2010, more than $237,000 had been removed from the church's bank accounts through questionable transactions. The majority of these transactions were for the benefit of the pastor, his wife, and a former church secretary. Shortly after the release of the report, the board of deacons voted to suspend the pastor with pay. A month later, the local prosecutor's office authorized an arrest warrant for the pastor on one count of embezzlement. The pastor later pleaded nolo contendere (or "no contest") to a charge of embezzling more than $50,000 but less than $100,000 and was ordered to pay restitution.

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