Church Membership

An Illinois court ruled that it was barred from resolving a lawsuit by a former church member challenging various actions taken by the church’s board of elders in disciplining him.

Church Law and Tax 2000-09-01

Church Membership

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 which members are in good standing of a church.

An Illinois court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a lawsuit by a former church member challenging various actions taken by the church’s board of elders in disciplining him. A church member (“Greg”) was very active in his church, and occupied several positions of leadership. Another member accused Greg of “serious” and “grave” sins. In particular, the member claimed that Greg “called her on the telephone when her husband was not home, came over to her house and commented that her dress looked nice.” The church’s governing documents defined “serious” or “grave” sins as “offenses serious enough to merit one’s expulsion from the congregation” and may include “fraud, slander, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, blasphemy, apostasy, idolatry, and similar grave and gross sins.” Another member charged Greg with serious sins at the same time. She alleged that Greg “commented that the colors of her dress and sweater went well together.”

Greg claimed that both of the members who brought charges against him had been “solicited” by the board of elders to fabricate the allegations in an attempt to prevent him from becoming a church elder and to destroy his “good name and reputation in the community.” The board of elders made a “public” statement about Greg’s “sins” to the congregation, removed him from his positions of lay leadership, prevented him from taking part in congregational activities, and “made numerous misstatements and misrepresentations to others in furtherance of their scheme.”

Greg claimed that the actions of the two members who brought the charges against him, as well as those of the board of elders, caused him to “suffer extreme and severe emotional distress.” He sued the members and board for infliction of emotional distress, fraud, defamation, and invasion of privacy. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Greg appealed.

A state appeals court began its opinion by observing that the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion “bar any secular court from involving itself in the ecclesiastical controversies which may arise in a religious body or organization.” The court quoted from a landmark decision of the United States Supreme Court: “[I]t would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of … religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed.” Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1872).

The court conceded, however, that “where no consideration of religious doctrine is involved the ‘neutral principles of law’ approach may be applied, permitting a court to interpret provisions of religious documents involving property rights and other nondoctrinal matters, to the extent that the analysis can be done in purely secular terms.”

The question to be resolved in this case, then, was whether a resolution of Greg’s claims “can be attained without inquiry into the religious principles and doctrine of the [church].” The court noted that the “gist” of Greg’s complaint was that the board of elders conspired to prevent him from becoming an elder, remove him from his current responsibilities and force him to leave the church.” In furtherance of the conspiracy, the elders allegedly solicited false accusations from the two members. Greg insisted that the court could resolve his claims without inquiring into church doctrine. The court disagreed: “The alleged conspiracy began with what [Greg] characterized as ‘false accusations’ of ‘grave’ and ‘serious’ sins, as defined by the [church]. In order to determine whether the alleged statements constituted sufficient grounds for [Greg’s] removal, the trial court clearly would have had to analyze and apply ecclesiastical doctrines to the civil case.”

Application. This case illustrates the reluctance of the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes involving the discipline or dismissal of members. This reluctance led the court to reject Greg’s claim that he had been wronged despite the fact that the board of elders read a statement to the congregation describing Greg’s “serious sins” and the board allegedly induced two members to bring false charges against him. Abrams v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 715 N.E.2d 798 (Ill. App. 1999).

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