Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
First Amendment Bars Court from Resolving Dismissed Member’s Lawsuit

Key point 6-06.4. Church officers and directors can be removed from office in the manner authorized by the church’s governing documents. It is common for church bylaws to give the membership the authority to remove officers and directors who engage in specified misconduct or change their doctrinal position.

A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed member’s lawsuit against his former church. A church member (the “plaintiff”) had served as a church deacon for three years when the pastor and deacon-board chairman called a special meeting to accuse him of heresy. The plaintiff asserted that the pastor and chairman had defamed him by falsely accusing him “of being a Heretical Apostate committing acts against [the] Church, Spiritual Beliefs, Faith and God orally and publicly in the presence of members of [the] Church.”

In further support of his defamation claim, the plaintiff claimed that the pastor and chairman had written an open letter, made available to all members of the church, disparaging the plaintiff’s good name. That letter, signed by the pastor and deacon chairman, told the plaintiff that his membership was terminated. The letter explained that the plaintiff’s public and private “heretical statements” regarding the inerrancy of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus Christ caused the termination. The letter also noted that the church’s action “was required to maintain the integrity of the church’s doctrine, and to protect the church from false teaching.”

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