• Can a federal court stop a religious organization from excommunicating one of its members? No, said a federal court in New York in a recent decision. The member had filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking a resolution of a dispute that had arisen between him and the organization. While the suit was pending, the member claimed that the organization (the “rabbinical congress”) was pressuring him to drop the lawsuit and submit the dispute to a rabbinical court. In particular, the member asserted that the rabbinical congress was threatening to excommunicate him and have him declared a “religious outcast” unless he withdrew the civil lawsuit. Such actions prompted the member to seek an order from the court barring the rabbinical congress from excommunicating him or engaging in any other efforts to force him to withdraw his lawsuit and submit the dispute to a rabbinical court. The court refused to grant the relief requested by the member. It observed: “A long line of Supreme Court cases holds that, where a religious body adjudicates relations among its members, courts will not interfere with the decisions of those bodies made in accordance with those bodies’ rules. This line of cases is based on the Court’s observation that voluntary religious organizations are much like any other voluntary organization and are in the best position to interpret their own rules. As the Court stated in [a previous decision]: ‘It is not to be supposed that the judges of the civil courts can be as competent in ecclesiastical law and religious faith … as the ablest men in each [faith] are in reference to their own ….’ Thus, federal courts will not interfere with the decisions of a religious body adjudicating the relationships of members in that body; as a matter of jurisprudence federal courts will defer to the decision of the religious body.” The court also noted that “[i]n other cases, the Supreme Court has held that it is contrary to the first amendment for a court, either federal or state, to engage in an examination of ecclesiastical doctrine, and unless such examination cannot be avoided, a court must defer to the decisions of a religious body.” The court noted that in this case, the member had asked the court “to do something it is not able to do either as a matter of federal jurisprudence or under the first amendment: decide whether [he] should be excommunicated from his religious community for prosecuting this suit against [the rabbinical congress].” The court acknowledged that if the member were in fact threatened with imminent physical harm by the rabbinical congress, then “he could come to this court for a remedy.” However, “the mere expulsion from a religious society, with the exclusion from a religious community, is not a harm for which courts can grant a remedy.” In conclusion, the court permitted the member to pursue a judicial resolution of his dispute with the rabbinical congress, and ruled that the member’s threatened excommunication was “beyond the powers of this court to stop, so long as the excommunication results in nothing more than [the member] being excluded from his religious community.” Grunwald v. Bornfreund, 696 F. Supp. 838 (E.D.N.Y. 1988).
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