Church Membership – Part 1

A Missouri court ruled that it was barred from resolving a lawsuit brought by a dismissed church member claiming that his church defamed him.

Church Law and Tax2003-07-01

Church Membership – Part 1

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

* A Missouri court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by a dismissed church member claiming that his church defamed him in a letter it sent to members of the congregation. The member had been dismissed for creating dissension among church members, attacking church leadership, and refusing to participate in any attempts to resolve the conflict. A letter sent to each church member, informing them of the member’s dismissal, stated that “no pastor or representative of our church has filed any legal charges against [the member].” The dismissed member claimed that this letter defamed him. A trial court agreed, and awarded him compensatory and punitive damages amounting to $30,000. A state appeals court reversed this judgment, and dismissed the case. It noted that the first amendment prevents “civil court intervention in matters involving church discipline, including the discipline of a member of the congregation …. Here, the claims of libelous remarks are clearly related to [the pastors’] belief that [the member’s] conduct within the church required he be disciplined; the comments were made during the time of the controversy concerning his removal from membership; and the remarks were made to people associated with the church as a part of the pastors’ report to the ‘church family’ about the member’s impending removal from the church membership. As such, they fall within the scope of first amendment protection.” With regard to the “legal charges” remark in the letter to the church’s members, the court noted that this remark was “part of the pastors’ explanation to church members that they attempted to counsel and work with the member by following church law, procedure, and biblical guidance without resort to secular law. It is abundantly clear that this comment is inextricably intertwined with the disciplinary question that any inquiry into its libelous nature would also require an impermissible inquiry into religious disciplinary practices.” Brady v. Pace, 2003 WL 1750088 (Mo. App. 2003).

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