Courts and Church Membership

Court dismisses lawsuit by excommunicated church members.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01

Church Membership

Key point. The civil courts will not resolve lawsuits brought by dismissed church members challenging the validity of their dismissal.

A Washington state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by excommunicated members of a local church against denominational officials. A division arose within a local congregation, prompting a request for a regional denominational agency to intervene. The agency responded by forming a commission that investigated the dispute. The commission later asked the church board to resign and excommunicated 13 of the most disruptive protestors. A national denominational body later endorsed this result. The 13 ousted members sued the regional denominational agency for intentional infliction of emotional distress (“outrage”) as a result of the announcement by denominational officials from the pulpit of their decision to excommunicate the 13 members. The denomination asked the trial court to dismiss the case, but this request was denied. The denomination appealed this decision and a state appeals court ruled that the trial court erred in not dismissing the case. The court reasoned that “individuals have a qualified privilege to engage in conduct for religious purposes.” This means that there ordinarily can be no liability based on religious activities, with certain exceptions. These exceptions include the following: (1) Conduct that is not religiously motivated. (2) Conduct that “impacts the health, safety and order of society such that the state’s interest in regulating the conduct outweighs the religious freedom of the individual.” (3) “Where a plaintiff can establish that the defendant acted with actual malice, such malice negates any claim that the action was undertaken for religious purposes.”

The court concluded that none of these exceptions applied, and accordingly the announcement by denominational officials from the pulpit that the 13 members had been excommunicated could not be the basis for legal liability. The court rejected the application of the first exception since the officials’ acts were religiously motivated. It rejected the application of the second exception since the ousted members never alleged that their excommunication impacted the health, safety or order of society. The court rejected the application of the third exception as well. It noted that the ousted members claimed that malice was demonstrated by the denominational official’s alleged failure to follow the church’s charter and bylaws, and by their denial of the members’ “due process” rights by excommunicating them without notice or a hearing. The court, in rejecting this theory of malice, observed:

[The members’] claim is not that the church leaders improperly announced the excommunications. Rather [they] are attempting to prove that the church leaders wrongfully excommunicated them. However, because individuals have an absolute freedom of religious belief, civil courts abstain from deciding whether a hierarchical religious body has abided by its own religious principles when acting in a particular case …. Whatever the definition of actual malice is, it cannot entail an analysis of whether a hierarchical church violated its own laws and procedures; such an analysis is otherwise prohibited by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

The court further observed that “given the decision to excommunicate, an official announcement before the congregation was mandated by the [denomination’s] constitution.” This conclusively demonstrated the religious nature of the officials’ action in announcing the excommunications from the pulpit. Korean Presbyterian Church v. Lee, 880 P.2d 565 (Wash. App. 1994). [ Discipline and Dismissal]

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