Dismissal of Church Members

Court says it can’t get involved in dispute involving religious group’s ousted members.

Church Law and Tax 1995-03-01 Recent Developments

Church Membership

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

A federal court in South Dakota ruled that it had no authority to interfere with a decision by a religious organization to oust some of its members. A dispute arose within a communal religious sect (the Hutterian Brethren Church) regarding a Church official. One faction voted to remove the official after he was accused of fraud, while another faction supported the official (claiming that he held his office for life). Those members opposing the official were expelled from the Church and denied any property rights in Church property. The expelled members filed a lawsuit challenging their dismissal. A federal court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it lacked jurisdiction to resolve it. The court began its opinion by noting that “the first amendment (guaranty of religious freedom) forbids civil courts from disturbing decisions of hierarchical polity made by the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a church when such a resolution by civil courts would require extensive inquiry into religious law and polity.” The court quoted with approval from a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court:

In short, the first and fourteenth amendments permit hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. When this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

The court concluded that it was

unable to envision any set of facts which would more entangle the court in matters of religious doctrine and practice. The religious communal system present in this case involves more than matters of religious faith, it involves a religious lifestyle. An individual Hutterian colony member’s entire life—essentially from cradle to grave—is governed by the church. Any resolution of a property dispute between a colony and its members would require extensive inquiry into religious doctrine and beliefs. It would be a gross violation of the first amendment and Supreme Court mandates for this court to become involved in this dispute. Wollman v. Poinsett Hutterian Brethren Church, 844 F. Supp. 539 (D.S.D. 1994).

See Also: Discipline and Dismissal

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