Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A Michigan court ruled that it was barred by the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine from resolving a claim that a church school committed unlawful discrimination in denying a disabled student admission.An adolescent female (the “plaintiff”) attended seventh and eighth grades at a church-affiliated private school. She claimed that she had been assured by school personnel that if she enrolled at the school for seventh and eighth grade, she would be guaranteed placement in ninth grade. However, plaintiff was denied admission to ninth grade. Some two months after being denied admission, the plaintiff was diagnosed with certain learning disabilities. Thereafter, the plaintiff sued the school for discriminating against her based on her disability. She alleged that despite being “long aware that she had a learning disability,” the school denied her admission to ninth grade and “consistently relied upon her learning disability as a justification” for doing so.
The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
The school argued that the civil courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over this claim pursuant to the protections of the First Amendment. The trial court disagreed, and the school appealed. The appeals court observed: “It is well settled that courts, both federal and state, are severely circumscribed by the [First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom] in the resolution of disputes between a church and its members,” and that “whenever the court must stray into questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity the court loses jurisdiction … . This limitation on civil court jurisdiction is referred to as the ‘ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.'”
The court quoted with approval from an earlier case in which three families sued a parochial school after their children were denied admission. Dlaikan v. Roodeen, 522 N.W.2d 719 (Mich. App. 1994). The court in the previous case concluded that review of the school’s admission decision fell outside the jurisdiction of civil courts, explaining:
When the claim involves the provision of the very services (or as here refusal to provide these services) for which the organization enjoys First Amendment protection, then any claimed contract for such services likely involves its ecclesiastical policies, outside the purview of civil law. In this regard there can be no distinction between a church providing a liturgical service in its sanctuary and providing education imbued with its religious doctrine in its parochial school. A civil court should avoid foray into a “property dispute” regarding admission to a church’s religious or educational activities, the essence of its constitutionality protected function. To do so is to set foot on the proverbial slippery slope toward entanglement in matters of doctrine or ecclesiastical polity.
The Dlaikan court explained that some activity by an ecclesiastical organization may be governed by civil law alone, such as “entering into a contract to buy or sell property or interact some other way with the secular world.” However, claims regarding admission to a church school were “so entangled in questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical policy that the civil courts lack jurisdiction to hear them.”
The Michigan court agreed with the previous case:
Here, as in Dlaikan, the plaintiff is suing a parochial school after she was denied admission. Thus, the claim, whether it is premised on a breach of contract as in Dlaikan or disability discrimination as is the case here, “involves the provision of the very services (or as here refusal to provide these services) for which the organization enjoys First Amendment protection.” Pursuant to Dlaikan, “a civil court should avoid foray into a ‘property dispute’ regarding admission to a church’s religious or education activities.”
What This Means For Churches:
This is one of the few cases to address the application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to admissions decisions by church-affiliated schools. According to this court, the civil courts cannot resolve claims of disability discrimination by students denied admission at a church school. Winkler v. Marist Fathers, 2015 WL 7079054 (Mich. App. 2015).