• 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 Florida court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by a minister against his denomination claiming that it failed to follow its internal procedures in handling a sexual misconduct complaint brought against him by a female member of his congregation. The court noted that “the first amendment … precludes civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters. Courts may not consider employment disputes between a religious organization and its clergy because such matters necessarily involve questions of internal church discipline, faith, and organization that are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law. Whether an individual is qualified to be a clergy member of a particular faith is a matter to be determined by the procedures and dictates of that particular faith.” The court quoted from an earlier ruling by the United States Supreme Court, “Civil courts must accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). However, the court noted that when a church-related dispute “can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving a religious controversy, the civil courts may adjudicate the dispute.”
Can a civil court resolve a lawsuit brought against a religious organization based on its alleged negligence in suspending one of its ministers? No, concluded the court. It concluded, “The interaction between a church and its pastor is an essential part of church government. In particular, a minister’s employment relationship with his church implicates internal church discipline, faith, and organization, all of which are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law. Thus, civil courts must abstain from deciding ministerial employment disputes or reviewing decisions of religious judicatory bodies concerning the employment of clergy, because such state intervention would excessively inhibit religious liberty.” Southeastern Conference Association of Seventh-Day Adventists, Inc. v. Dennis, 2003 WL 22901705 (Fla. App. 2003).
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