• Key point. The civil courts cannot resolve disputes between clergy and denominational agencies that involve doctrinal or essentially ecclesiastical issues. However, the courts can resolve disputes that do not involve such issues.
A Minnesota court refused to resolve a lawsuit brought by two former church members challenging their expulsion. The former church members (a married couple) claimed that their pastor, in order to obtain a bank loan, persuaded them to personally guaranty the loan. The pastor allegedly assured them that if the church ever defaulted on the loan, the couple would “split any profits” which were made on the sale of the church property. A few years later the couple was notified by the bank that the church was behind in making its payments. The couple retained an attorney, and discontinued their contact with the church. However, they never notified the church of their intent to terminate their memberships. The attorney wrote the pastor, asking that the couple be released from the guaranty. The pastor responded by issuing a letter dismissing the couple from membership in the church. In this letter the pastor set forth the following reasons for the termination of membership: (1) A lack of financial stewardship with consistency and faithful tithing and offering over a given period of time. (2) A desire to consistently create division, animosity and strife in the fellowship. (3) Direct fabrication of lies with the intent to hurt the congregation. (4) Backbiting, accusations, division, and lying, which “are some of the most serious sins found in the Bible.” This letter was read to the entire congregation. A few weeks later the pastor met with all of the church’s guarantors, including the dismissed couple, and admitted that no “profits” would be split among the guarantors if the church was ever sold. The dismissed couple thereafter sued the pastor and church, alleging defamation and fraud. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the couple appealed.
A state appeals court began its opinion by observing that “when a claim may be resolved by ‘neutral methods of proof’ unrelated to issues of church doctrine or governance, then the first amendment will not prohibit judicial review.” On the other hand, there are many kinds of internal church disputes that the civil courts are prohibited from resolving:
[T]he first amendment precludes judicial review of claims involving core questions of church discipline and internal governance …. Excessive entanglement may occur when judicial review of a claim requires “a searching … inquiry into church doctrine.” Such a claim might involve a church’s stated reasons for rejecting an individual for pastorship or a church’s stated reasons for failing to appoint an individual as an associate pastor and discharging her …. The [couple’s] claim of defamation centers upon [the pastor’s] statements supporting the decision to terminate the [couple’s] membership in the church. The church and [pastor] assert the basis for the statements are in the Bible, and in the church’s religious beliefs and practices as expressed in the church’s written Articles of Faith and Bylaws.
The court then addressed the 2 specific claims of the expelled couple—defamation and fraud.
The court noted that to be defamatory, a statement must be communicated to others, it must be false, and it must “tend to harm the [victim’s] reputation in the community.” The court concluded that it could not determine
whether the statements were true or false without inquiring into religious doctrine by reason of the circumstances in which the statements were made. Whether a member of a church has been faithful to the doctrines of the church cannot be determined without understanding the doctrines of the church. Enabling a jury to understand the doctrines of the [couple’s] church would require an impermissible inquiry into these doctrines. Since examination of the truth of [the pastor’s] statements would require an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine and discipline, the [trial] court did not err in concluding that the defamation claim is precluded by the first amendment [guaranty of religious freedom].
The court acknowledged that the pastor’s statement that the couple had engaged in “[d]irect fabrication of lies with the intent to hurt the reputation and the establishment” of the church seemed to be unrelated to church doctrine. However, “the statement nevertheless relates to the church’s reasons and motives for terminating the [couple’s] membership. Examination of those reasons and motives would also require an impermissible inquiry into church disciplinary matters.”
Finally, the court stressed that “the fact that the letter was disseminated only to other members of the church strengthens the conclusion that [pastor’s] statements involved and were limited to church discipline. The [couple’s] claim clearly involves an internal conflict within the church, which is precluded by the first amendment.”
The court also refused to resolve the couple’s fraud claim. It noted that “an allegation of fraud must relate to a past or existing fact and may not be predicated upon future contingencies or predictions.” The fraud claim in this case was based on the pastor’s representations that if the couple signed a guaranty and the church defaulted, then the amount of proceeds from the sale of the church would be split among the guarantors. Therefore, since the pastor’s representations were “based upon the occurrence of several future events, we agree with the [trial] court that the fraud claim is insufficient as a matter of law.” Schoenhals v. Mains, 504 N.W.2d 233 (Minn. App. 1993). [ Church Members—Discipline and Dismissal]
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