A Michigan court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a pastor against members of his church who were attempting to remove him as pastor.

Church Law and Tax2003-03-01


Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.


* A Michigan court dismissed a lawsuit brought by a pastor against members of his church who were attempting to remove him as pastor. The court noted that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom “severely restricts federal and state courts from resolving disputes between a church and its members. In fact, jurisdiction over such matters is limited to determining property rights that can be resolved by the application of civil law.” In this case, a group of church members were attempting to oust their pastor. The pastor sued these members, claiming that they used the church facility, without proper authority, for meetings critical of him and for the purpose of an unauthorized election to overthrow him as minister. He also claimed that the members took steps to announce the election to the congregation without following church procedures and rules, and that they made defamatory statements regarding his use of the church facility and its funds. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on first amendment grounds, and a state appeals court upheld the dismissal of the case. It concluded, “What the complaint here presents is an internecine ecclesiastical dispute between plaintiff and defendants, all members of a church, concerning whether the plaintiff acted appropriately as the church’s minister. Whether the minister’s actions were appropriate depends almost entirely on an understanding of the internal church discipline, faith and organization of the church; in other words, this dispute is governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom and law. Accordingly, we conclude that the exercise of civil court jurisdiction over this dispute would excessively inhibit religious liberty.” Revely v. Jones, 2001 WL 1585052 (Mich. App. 2002).

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