Discipline of Church Members

Churches’ membership decisions are protected by the First Amendment.

Church Law and Tax 1992-11-01 Recent Developments

Taxation – Church Property

The Oklahoma Supreme Court has rendered its second ruling on the discipline of church members in three years. A church convened a disciplinary hearing to determine the membership status of two sisters accused of fornication. Neither sister attended, and neither sister withdrew her membership in the church. Following the hearing, both sisters received letters from the church informing them that their membership had been terminated. The sisters sued the church and its leaders, claiming that the church’s actions in delivering the termination letters and disclosing their contents “to the public” constituted defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of privacy (public disclosure of private facts). A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the sisters appealed directly to the state supreme court which upheld the dismissal of the case. The court began its opinion by rejecting the sisters’ claim that the contents of the termination letters had been disclosed improperly to the public. This allegation was based entirely on a conversation between a church board member and another member of the church. The member asked the board member why the board was “going after” the sisters, and the board member replied that it was on account of “fornication.” The court concluded that this comment did not constitute a disclosure of the contents of the letters “to the public,” and accordingly there had been no defamation of invasion of privacy. In rejecting the sisters’ allegation of emotional distress, the court noted that the evidence “does not suggest that the lay leader’s conduct was so extreme and outrageous as to justify submission of the claim to the jury.” The court then addressed he sisters’ claim that the manner in which the church notified them of the results of the disciplinary proceeding was inappropriate. In rejecting this claim, the court observed: “The church court had proper ecclesiastical cognizance when the letters were delivered. The [sisters] had not withdrawn their membership at the time they received notice of their expulsion. Under the first amendment, the procedural norms which govern the exercise of ecclesiastical cognizance are not subject to a secular court’s scrutiny. The [trial] court was hence without any authority to assess the propriety of the notice given.” The court then proceeded to announce an absolute constitutional protection for the membership determinations of religious organizations (assuming that the disciplined member has not effectively withdrawn his or her membership):

[The relationship between a church and its members] may be severed freely by a member’s positive act at any time. Until it is so terminated, the church has authority to prescribe and follow disciplinary ordinances without fear of interference by the state. The first amendment will protect and shield the religious body from liability for the activities carried on pursuant to the exercise of church discipline. Within the context of church discipline, churches enjoy an absolute privilege from scrutiny by the secular authority.

This absolute privilege also extends to the implementation of the decision of the church regarding the discipline of a member, even though the implementation occurs after the member has been dismissed. However, the absolute privilege only applies to disciplinary actions taken by the church before a member withdraws from membership. The court explained the effect of a member’s withdrawal from membership as follows:

At the point when the church-member relationship is severed through an affirmative act of either a parishioner’s withdrawal or excommunication by the ecclesiastical body, a different situation arises. In the event of withdrawal or of post-excommunication activity … the absolute privilege from tort liability no longer attaches.

However, the court cautioned that “until an affirmative notification of membership withdrawal is received the church need not reassess the course of its legitimate ecclesiastical interest.”

The most astounding aspect of the court’s opinion was its conclusion that churches are immune from the civil “discovery” process with regard to their internal disciplinary proceedings. “Discovery” refers to the process of gathering evidence for civil trial, and includes depositions, interrogatories, and motions to produce documents. The court said that churches are immune from these discovery techniques with regard to internal membership disciplinary proceedings (so long as a member is being disciplined prior to withdrawal from membership). The court observed:

The free exercise [of religion] clause prohibits civil courts from inquiring into any phase of ecclesiastical decisionmaking—its merits as well as procedure. Internal ecclesiastical procedure need not meet any “constitutional concepts of due process.” This is so because the church’s judicature rests solely on consent which in turn is anchored on the [member’s] church affiliation. Because religious judicature is immune from any civil court inquest, it is also protected from intrusion by discovery …. Church judicature exercised within proper bounds of cognizance is notBecause religious judicature is immune from any civil court inquest, it is also protected from intrusion by discovery discoverable. Conversely, any activity outside of valid church judicature is not absolutely privileged and may be discoverable.

The court based this conclusion in part on the following statement of the United States Supreme Court in a 1944 decision: “[R]eligious activities which concern only members of the faith are and ought to be free—as nearly absolutely free as anything can be.” The court upheld the dismissal of the sisters’ lawsuit against the church, and their attempt to discover various church records in support of their claims. However, it did state that the sisters were free to engage in civil discovery of any church records concerning any inappropriate church actions or disclosures following their dismissal as members. Hadnot v. Shaw, 826 P.2d 978 (Okla. 1992).

See Also: Discipline and Dismissal

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