Court Barred from Ruling on Suit Brought by Former Church Members

Key point 6-10.1. According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes

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.

A North Carolina appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by two dismissed church members challenging the legality of their removal.

A married couple (the plaintiffs) asked a court to rule that they remained active members of a church they had attended for 35 years. The church claimed that a membership meeting was convened and the members voted unanimously to revoke the plaintiffs’ membership. The plaintiffs challenged the validity of this meeting on the ground that it was not conducted in conformity with the church’s constitution and bylaws in at least two respects: (1) they were never informed in writing of their removal as members, and (2) they were not given an opportunity to address the church membership concerning their removal. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiffs’ status of membership in the church was a “core ecclesiastical matter.” The plaintiffs appealed.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the case. It concluded:

Courts should not and may not become entangled in purely ecclesiastical matters involving a church, but can resolve civil law matters which may arise from a church controversy. Ecclesiastical matters include those which concern doctrine, creed, or form of worship of the church, or the adoption and enforcement within a religious association of needful laws and regulations for the government of membership, and the power of excluding from such associations those deemed unworthy of membership by the legally constituted authorities of the church.

To determine whether an issue is an ecclesiastical matter, the dispositive question is whether resolution of the legal claim requires the court to interpret or weigh church doctrine. If the inquiry does not involve such interpretation, then neutral principles of civil law may be applied to resolve the issue.

The court noted that membership in a church is a core ecclesiastical matter and not a “property interest” as the plaintiffs alleged.

On appeal, the plaintiffs claimed that their ouster was unlawful because the church failed to follow the procedure spelled out in its constitution and bylaws. The church bylaws addressed the discipline of members as follows:

Should some serious condition exist which would cause a member to be a liability to the general welfare of the church, the pastor and the deacons will take every reasonable measure to resolve the problem in accord with Matthew 18. If it becomes necessary for the church to take action to exclude a member, a three-fourths . . . secret vote of the members present is required; and the church may proceed to declare the person to be no longer in the membership of the church. A spirit of Christian kindness and forbearance shall pervade all such proceedings.

The plaintiffs argued no vote was taken, they were never provided written notice of their removal, nor were they provided an opportunity to address the other members of the church to discuss their removal. The court noted that “the bylaws specifically call for a three-fourths . . . secret vote” and do not provide for or require prior notice, an opportunity for the affected member to be heard, or a written notification of removal.

The plaintiffs also asserted “that at no time did they take any action to have themselves removed from church membership.” The court responded: “A determination of this issue would fall squarely within ecclesiastical matters beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. . . . We cannot decide who ought to be members of the church, nor whether the excommunicated have been regularly or irregularly cut off.” The court concluded:

Plaintiffs’ allegations center around ecclesiastical matters, specifically the adoption and enforcement within a religious association of needful laws and regulations for the government of membership, and the power of excluding from such associations those deemed unworthy of membership by the legally constituted authorities of the church. We cannot apply neutral principles of law without delving into ecclesiastical matters to determine whether or not plaintiffs were properly removed from the church membership. . . . Civil courts cannot become entangled with deciding what action may or may not have justified plaintiffs’ removal from church membership, and further inquiry by this court into the matter is barred.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates what many courts call the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine. Under this doctrine the civil courts are barred by the First Amendment religion clauses from resolving most internal church disputes. While not using the terminology “ecclesiastical abstention,” the United States Supreme Court described the basic principle in a 1976 ruling in which it noted that the civil courts lack jurisdiction over internal church disputes that are “strictly and purely ecclesiastical in [their] character . . . a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.” Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The concept of ecclesiastical abstention prevented the court in this case from resolving the plaintiffs’ wrongful expulsion claim. Lippard v. Diamond Hill Church, 821 S.E.2d 246 (N.C. App. 2018).

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