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Issues that affect ministers and churches
Court Barred from Ruling on Suit Brought by Former Church Members

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.

A North Carolina appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by two dismissed church members challenging the legality of their removal. A married couple (the plaintiffs) asked a court to rule that they remained active members of a church they had attended for 35 years. The church claimed that a membership meeting was convened and the members voted unanimously to revoke the plaintiffs’ membership. The plaintiffs challenged the validity of this meeting on the ground that it was not conducted in conformity with the church’s constitution and bylaws in at least two respects: (1) they were never informed in writing of their removal as members, and (2) they were not given an opportunity to address the church membership concerning their removal. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiffs’ status of membership in the church was a “core ecclesiastical matter.” The plaintiffs appealed.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It concluded:

Courts should not and may not become entangled in purely ecclesiastical matters involving a church, but can resolve civil law matters which may arise from a church controversy. Ecclesiastical matters include those which concern doctrine, creed, or form of worship of the church, or the adoption and enforcement within a religious association of needful laws and regulations for the government of membership, and the power of excluding from such associations those deemed unworthy of membership by the legally constituted authorities of the church.

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