Can a church dismiss members who sue the church? That was the issue before an Ohio court.
A local Baptist church experienced an ongoing internal dispute over whether or not to build a new sanctuary. A group of 75 members sued the church, pastor, and board of deacons, challenging certain decisions that had been made. The board of deacons later voted (9 to 5) in favor of recommending to the congregation that the membership of all 75 dissidents be terminated.
A congregational meeting was called to vote on the issue, but the dissidents immediately sought a court order preventing the meeting from occurring. The dissidents argued that their church membership was a valuable right (some of them were fifth generation members of the church) that was being denied by the church’s action. They also claimed that the church bylaws did not authorize the board to dismiss members for suing the church. The church bylaws did authorize discipline or dismissal on the basis of “immoral or un-Christian conduct,” but the dissidents argued that this language did not extend to lawsuits brought against the church. They stressed that the right to go to court for the redress of grievances is a fundamental civil right that was not specifically restricted by the church bylaws.
On the other hand, the church vigorously maintained that members who sue the church are guilty of “un-Christian” behavior since “there is a basis in Scripture for the exclusion from church membership of those who take church disputes outside the church for resolution.” The court agreed with the church, and refused to issue an order prohibiting the church from conducting a meeting to dismiss the 75 members for suing the church.
The court based its decision on a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court, in which the Supreme Court concluded that the civil courts must accept the decisions of hierarchical churches concerning discipline of members and clergy. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The Ohio court acknowledged that a Baptist church is “congregational” rather than hierarchical in structure, and accordingly the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision did not directly apply in this case. However, the court concluded that there should be no distinction between congregational and hierarchical churches regarding the effect of their decisions to discipline members. The court observed:
Creating a different standard for civil court review of church disputes for hierarchical and congregational churches would create differing levels of government intrusion into church affairs, presumably with more intrusion in the congregational houses of worship. But courts and government, under the first amendment, are required to treat all religious faiths equally and neutrally …. In light of this fundamental principle of neutrality, a civil court could not allow the decisions of a hierarchical church to go unchallenged while making detailed inquiries into the practices of a congregational church. Accordingly, the [the Supreme Court’s Serbian decision] should extend to congregational churches …. A secular court should not resolve disputes over who can be a member of a particular church regardless of whether that church is hierarchical or congregational.
The court also relied on the following language from an 1871 decision of the United States Supreme Court:
All who unite themselves to such a body [the general church] do so with an implied consent to its government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871).
The Ohio court further observed that “recent cases from other jurisdictions support the concept that congregational churches are free from secular court scrutiny of their internal practices and discipline.” Noting that civil court review of church property disputes is very limited, the court concluded: “The first amendment concerns which militate against court entanglement with property disputes of religious groups would be even more strongly applicable to membership problems within churches. The question of who is one’s co-religionist is more nearly central to issues of faith and practice revered by the first amendment than secular concerns such as who has the deed to the house of worship.”
What this means for churches
This case is important because it supports the right of churches to dismiss members for suing their church. Further, the court conceded that the 75 members who sued their church had violated a church bylaw prohibiting “un-Christian” conduct. A church wishing to impose discipline on members who sue the church should amend its bylaws to clarify that suing the church will be deemed unscriptural and unacceptable conduct. Appropriate scriptural references (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:1-8) should be cited. Alexander v. Shiloh Baptist Church, 592 N.E.2d 918 (Ohio Com. Pl. 1991).