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Minnesota Court Rules on the Extent of First Amendment Protections for Church Discipline
Minnesota
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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 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.
Key point 10-15. The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church's liability for defamation.

A Minnesota court ruled that it was barred by the "ecclesiastical abstention" doctrine from resolving two church members' claims that they had been defamed by statements made about them in a church disciplinary meeting. An elderly married couple (the "plaintiffs") were longstanding members of a Lutheran church. The church leadership convened a special membership meeting to determine if the plaintiffs should be excommunicated. At this meeting, the pastor read from a prepared document and made numerous statements about the plaintiffs. These statements included:

  • The plaintiffs were "actively involved in slander, gossip, and speaking against the pastor, the pastor's wife, and the church, including the claim that the pastor was stealing money from the church."
  • The plaintiffs had "intentionally attacked, questioned, and discredited the integrity" of the pastor and other church leaders.
  • Members had seen the plaintiffs display "anger and disrespect" toward the pastor.

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