Church Members

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that it was barred from resolving a claim by a dismissed church member that his church violated his legal rights when it dismissed him.

Church Law and Tax2001-03-01

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 Michigan Supreme Court ruled that it was barred from resolving a claim by a dismissed church member that his church violated his legal rights when it dismissed him. A man (David) began attending a small, independent church and became a church member a year later. When he became a member, David consented not to cause division within the church, to be faithful to Matthew 18:15-17, and to accept discipline imposed by the church. Matthew 18:15-17 provides: “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.”

Shortly after he began to attend the church, David requested a meeting with the church’s pastor. At that meeting, David disclosed that he previously had visited prostitutes. David believed that this disclosure would be kept confidential. A few years later, David was removed from the church’s membership not because of his confession to the pastor but because he was causing division within the church by challenging church leaders over religious doctrine. David requested that he be reinstated, but the pastor advised that before he could be reinstated he had to confess his sins, including his past indiscretions with prostitutes, to the church board and to his wife. David complied and was reinstated, but the board warned him that if he did not end his divisive conduct, he would again be subject to discipline. Despite this warning, David continued to cause division within the church. Therefore, the church decided to “mark” him according to Matthew 18:15-17, which involves singling out a person who is involved in sin and causing division within the church, and disclosing the person’s sins to the church congregation. The pastor advised David’s wife and family that David would be marked in a church service on a specified date and cautioned them against attending church that day. By that time, David had submitted a letter withdrawing his formal membership in the church; however, he remained involved with the church, and was present at the church on the day chosen for his marking, apparently entering the church to dispute the pastor over religious doctrine. Later in the service, the pastor announced to the congregation that David had formerly visited prostitutes. On the basis of this revelation, David sued the pastor and his church. He claimed that the pastor’s disclosure of the confession regarding prostitutes was a violation of the clergy-penitent privilege and also amounted to an invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress. David alleged that the church was responsible for the pastor’s actions. Both the pastor and church claimed that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from becoming involved in the discipline of church members. David insisted that the court could become involved since the pastor’s actions were rooted in malice and spite rather than religious considerations.

The court concluded that it did not have to reach the first amendment issue, since David’s claims against both the pastor and church were barred by his own consent to the process of discipline. The court observed:

David manifested his consent to the church’s practices in several ways. First, he became actively engaged in the church … and shortly after, he explicitly consented in writing to obey the church’s law, and to accept the church’s discipline “with a free, humble, and thankful heart.” Thus, David can be taken to have impliedly consented by his active engagement and participation in the church, or to have expressly consented through his writing. Any doubt whether David appreciated the scope of his consent by his active engagement is certainly resolved by the explicit writing. Further, as the Supreme Court stated over 130 years ago, “[a]ll who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this [church] government, and are bound to submit to it.” Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1871).

David relied on an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision holding that church members who resign their church membership thereby “withdraw their consent” to be governed by the church’s rules and practices. Guinn v. Church of Christ, 775 P.2d 766 (Okla., 1989). The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that the Guinn case was not applicable:

We disagree with David’s argument because church membership alone is not dispositive of whether [he] consented to the church’s practices. For example, a person may be a full participant in a church, fully aware of and actively engaged in all of its practices, without ever having become a formal church member. Through knowledge and actions, a person so engaged with the church would indicate consent to the church’s practices although the person never became a church “member.” Further, “membership” is an amorphous concept. Indeed, many faiths do not include a concept of “membership” at all, and do not require membership for adherents to participate in the faith’s formalities and customs. Therefore, we reject the proposition that whether a person is a member of the church or religious organization that allegedly invaded the person’s rights is alone determinative of whether the person may bring an intentional tort claim against the alleged [wrongdoer].

Instead, consent is the relevant consideration. As discussed, David consented to the church’s practices, and specifically consented to accept discipline. His claim that he revoked consent by terminating membership is belied by his continued involvement with the church. Even after the David resigned his formal church membership, he remained actively engaged in the church. Particularly, he was present and participating in a doctrinal dispute in the church on the day he was marked. In the same vein, David is in a different position than the plaintiff in Guinn. There, the plaintiff not only resigned her church membership, but she “expressed no interest in continuing her association with the [church].” Further, she “posed no threat of continued adverse influence on any [church] congregation.” Although David did resign his formal church membership, he continued an active association with the church, and specifically attempted to influence the church’s congregation, even on the very day he was being marked. Under tort law principles, a person who consents to another’s conduct cannot bring a tort claim for the harm that follows from that conduct. This is because no wrong is done to one who consents. Without a wrong, David has no compensable claim …. [B]ecause David consented to the church’s practices, and his active engagement with the church indicated his continuing consent, the church’s actions disciplining [him] were not tortious.

Application. This case is important for the following reasons:

1. The court concluded that church members who consent to be bound by a church’s governing rules, including those pertaining to the discipline of members, cannot later challenge their dismissal from church membership in civil court. The court noted that such consent may be demonstrated in various ways, including signed membership applications containing appropriate language. The court also suggested that persons who become members of a church “do so with an implied consent to this [church] government, and are bound to submit to it.”

2. The court rejected the conclusion of the Guinn case that churches may be legally liable for disciplining members who have resigned their church membership. It made two important observations. First, unlike the plaintiff in the Guinn case, David continued to be actively involved in the life of the church following his “resignation.” The court found that this continuing participation refuted David’s claim that he had revoked his consent to be governed by church rules as a result of this resignation from membership. Second, the court addressed the important question of whether a church member can avoid being disciplined by simply resigning his or her membership in the church. It observed, “We recognize, but need not decide, another issue in this case. That issue is whether religious discipline imposed on a person who is not a member of the disciplining religious body, or who is not consenting to the body’s authority when the discipline is imposed, nevertheless arose out of events that occurred during the person’s period of membership or consent. Allowing a person who was a member of a religious body or consented to such a body’s practices to escape discipline for actions that occurred during the period of membership or consent by severing ties to that body could undermine the efficacy of the body’s disciplinary practices toward its remaining members.” This is an important observation, for it reinforces the court’s conclusion that David could not avoid being disciplined by his church by simply resigning as a member. Smith v. Calvary Christian Church, 614 N.W.2d 590 (Mich. 2000).

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