The Guinn Case

In 1989, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a ruling that remains the definitive analysis on

In 1989, the Oklahoma Supreme Court issued a ruling that remains the definitive analysis on the discipline of church members. Guinn v. Church of Christ, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla. 1989). The court reached the following conclusions:

  • The discipline of church members (i.e., persons who have not withdrawn from membership) is a constitutionally protected right of churches.
  • Discipline of persons who have effectively withdrawn their church membership is not a constitutionally protected activity, and churches that engage in such conduct can be sued under existing theories of tort law.
  • The constitutional right of a church member to withdraw from church membership is protected by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom unless a member has waived that right. A church wishing to restrict the right of disciplined members to withdraw must obtain a voluntary and knowing waiver by present and prospective members of their constitutional right to withdraw. How can this be done? One approach would be for a church to adopt a provision in its bylaws preventing members from withdrawing if they are currently being disciplined by the church. Obviously, the disciplinary procedure must be carefully specified in the church bylaws so there is no doubt whether the disciplinary process has been initiated with respect to a member. Most courts have held that members are "on notice" of all of the provisions in the church bylaws, and consent to be bound by them when they become members. As a result, the act of becoming a member of a church with such a provision in its bylaws may well constitute an effective waiver of a member's right to withdraw (if the disciplinary process has begun).

Civil Court Did Not Have the Authority to Resolve a Lawsuit Brought by a Former Minister Against Denominational Officials

Rev. McManus had served as an ordained minister in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee)

Rev. McManus had served as an ordained minister in the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) for more than 30 years. In 1977, he disciplined certain members of his congregation, who thereafter were accepted as members in a neighboring Church of God congregation. Rev. McManus protested the action of the neighboring church to the "state overseer" of the denomination, on the ground that denominational rules had been violated. Both the state overseer and the national denomination refused to support Rev. McManus.

Rev. McManus and his congregation "protested" these actions by withholding "tithes" to the national organization. As a result, Rev. McManus was removed from his position as "district overseer" and from a place on the editorial and publishing board of the Church of God denomination. He later ceased to be a minister with the Church of God, and sued denominational officials as well as the state and national offices of the Church of God, for defamation.

The Louisiana appeals court, in concluding that it lacked jurisdiction to resolve the dispute, relied upon a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court, which held that the United States Constitution "permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. When this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them." Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

The Louisiana court concluded that "[i]t would be ludicrous to believe that the constitutional principles upheld by the United States Supreme Court … could be satisfied by allowing this intrusion into the disciplinary proceedings of an ecclesiastical board. To allow defamation suits to be litigated to the fullest extent against members of a religious board who are merely discharging the duty which has been entrusted to them by their church could have a potentially chilling effect on the performance of those duties." McManus v. Taylor, 521 So.2d 449 (La. App. 1988)

The Constitutional Guaranty of Freedom of Religion

Court refused to allow a “disfellowshiped” Jehovah’s Witness to sue her former church

A federal appeals court has refused to allow a "disfellowshiped" Jehovah's Witness to sue her former church for defamation, invasion of privacy, fraud, and outrageous conduct.

The disfellowshiped member claimed that she had been aggrieved by the Jehovah's Witness practice of "shunning" which requires members to avoid all social contacts with disfellowshiped members. The court, acknowledging that the harm suffered by disfellowshiped members is "real and not insubstantial," nevertheless concluded that permitting disfellowshiped members to sue their church for emotional injuries "would unconstitutionally restrict the Jehovah's Witness free exercise of religion."

The constitutional guaranty of freedom of religion, observed the court, "requires that society tolerate the type of harm suffered by [disfellowshiped members] as a price well worth paying to safeguard the right of religious difference that all citizens enjoy." Paul v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 819 F. 2d 875 (9th Cir. 1987).

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