Church Members

The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a church could not be sued for “shunning” members of another church that it labeled a “cult.”

Church Law and Tax2002-11-01

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.

Church Members

* The Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a church could not be sued for “shunning” members of another church that it labeled a “cult.” Two high school students (Bill and Jodi) started dating. Jodi began attending Bill’s church, although she occasionally attended her own family’s church (her “home church”). Jodi informed Bill’s father that she wanted to run away from home, in part because her stepfather was sexually abusing her. Jodi’s parents approached the elders of their church, and alleged that Bill’s church was a "cult." They also accused Bill of being a "cult recruiter." The elders contacted Bill’s church to address certain "doctrinal differences" between their churches and ask that it “repent” of some of its beliefs. When this meeting proved fruitless, the elders decided to "warn the Christian community" about the "dangerous practices" that Bill’s church allegedly practiced. They instructed their members to “shun” members of Bill’s church, and obtained a court order prohibiting members of Bill’s church from having contact with any member of their congregation.

These events all caused Bill great emotional distress. He also felt responsible for the lawsuit against his church because of his relationship with Jodi. He shot himself in the head in an attempt to kill himself. Although he survived this attempt, he was paralyzed from the chest down. Bill later filed his own lawsuit against Jodi’s home church and its elders, in which he claimed that they intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon him and breached their duty of care to him by shunning members of his church, calling his church a "cult," and referring to him as a "cult recruiter." A trial court dismissed Bill’s lawsuit on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment. Bill appealed.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Bill’s lawsuit. It began its opinion by observing that if conduct is protected by the first amendment’s “free exercise of religion” clause, then a lawsuit based on that conduct is barred. Further, conduct is protected by the first amendment if it is “religiously based” and sincere, and does not pose a substantial threat to public safety, peace or order. The court concluded that the conduct of Jodi’s home church and its elders (in instructing church members as well as members of other churches to "shun" and "disfellow" members of Bill’s church) was clearly religiously based and sincere. The shunning was undertaken "to force [the members of Bill’s church] to renounce and change their religious beliefs." Also, "shunning has its roots in early Christianity and various religious groups in our country engage in the practice."

The court noted that at least one other court has held that similar "shunning" behavior involves religion and is religiously based. Paul v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 819 F.2d 875 (9th Cir. 1987). In the earlier case, a dismissed member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sued his church, alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, fraud, and outrageous conduct. A federal appeals court held that religious "shunning" behavior is protected by the first amendment because imposing liability for such behavior would have the same effect as prohibiting it and would directly restrict the free exercise of religion. The court concluded: “Shunning is an actual practice of the church itself, and the burden of tort damages is direct …. Imposing tort liability for shunning on the church or its members would in the long run have the same effect as prohibiting the practice and would compel the church to abandon part of its religious teachings …. The church and its members would risk substantial damages every time a former church member was shunned. In sum, a … prohibition against shunning would directly restrict the free exercise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious faith.”

The court also noted that Jodi’s home church and its elders could not be sued for defamation based on their statements that Bill’s church was a “cult” and that Bill was a "cult recruiter" since “it is not factually verifiable whether a certain church is a cult or whether church members are cult recruiters. Instead, these are statements of religious belief and opinion.”

Application. This case illustrates that some “disciplinary” acts taken by churches against members of other congregations may be protected by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. However, note that some other courts have reached the opposite conclusion. For example, in one of the most important church discipline cases in recent years, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the first amendment did not protect the disciplinary actions taken by a church against a nonmember. Guinn v. Church of Christ, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla. 1989). As a result, church leaders should not attempt to take disciplinary actions against nonmembers without first consulting with an attorney. Sands v. Living Word Fellowship, 34 P.3d 955 (Alaska 2001).

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