Civil Courts May Never Interfere in the Selection of Clergy

Ambiguous wording in a church constitution or bylaws frequently leads to internal disputes. Such was

Ambiguous wording in a church constitution or bylaws frequently leads to internal disputes. Such was the case in a recent controversy in Washington. A Lutheran church's constitution provided that "the candidate receiving the majority of all votes cast shall, upon unanimous approval, be declared elected."

The church convened a congregational meeting to vote on a pastoral candidate, and the candidate received a majority of the votes cast (but not "unanimous approval"). The candidate was subsequently employed, and a group of dissidents filed a lawsuit in which they asked a civil court to enforce the church's constitutional requirement of "unanimous approval."

While noting that the first amendment prohibits a court "from entangling itself in matters of church doctrine or practice," the court concluded that it could resolve controversies, such as this one, involving the interpretation "of an ambiguous provision in what amounts to a contract between the members of the congregation, dealing with a purely procedural question" and involving "no ecclesiastical or doctrinal issues."

The court also noted that it found no "dispute resolution process" within the denomination to which it could defer. A dissenting judge, quoting several passages of Scripture (Numbers 11:16-17; Matthew 9:35-38; Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:19-23; Acts 6:2-7; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Ephesians 4:7-12; Hebrews 5:1-10) characterized the selection of clergy as an ecclesiastical process in which the civil courts may never interfere. Organization for Preserving the Constitution of Zion Lutheran Church v. Mason, 743 P.2d 848 (Wash. App. 1987).

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay