Church Membership

A Michigan court ruled that it was barred from resolving an internal church dispute since it could not do so without delving into church doctrine.

Church Law and Tax2003-05-01

Church Membership

Key point 6-09.1. The procedure for selecting members generally is defined by a church’s governing documents. The civil courts have refrained from resolving disputes over the selection of members on the ground that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding whether or not individuals satisfy the requirements for church membership.
Church Members

* A Michigan court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving an internal church dispute since it could not do so without delving into church doctrine. A dispute arose in a church, resulting in the church’s “disfellowshiping” of several members. Members of the church sought a court order prohibiting the disfellowshiped members from attending the church. The disfellowshiped members countered by arguing that they had been wrongfully disfellowshiped, and that a majority of the church’s membership supported them. Both sides produced affidavits and “membership lists” in support of their respective positions. The court concluded, “Unfortunately, the articles of incorporation offer no help in establishing who may become a member of the church. Indeed, the articles provide that ‘the New Testament shall be the only rule of faith and practice of said church.’ Accordingly, it is not possible for a court to determine which of the parties, if either, is actually the ‘church’ without delving into religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity …. Although a court may determine rights to church property where such can be determined by application of civil law, resolution of the property dispute in this case would require consideration of religious doctrine and ecclesiastical polity …. It is undisputed that [the church] is an independent or congregational church. However, both parties claim to represent the numerical majority and both argue that they are the church officers entrusted with the powers of control. Moreover, each party maintains that they are following the rules of the church. After a careful review of the record, we find we cannot determine which party actually represents the numerical majority, is in control, or is following the rules of the church, without improperly delving into matters of religious doctrine and ecclesiastical polity. Accordingly, the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over either parties’ property claim and it properly dismissed the case.” Church of Christ v. Gill, 2002 WL 737801 (Mich. App. 2002).

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