• Key point: The first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents civil courts from interfering with the discipline or dismissal of church members.
• The Oklahoma Supreme Court refused to resolve the claim of former church members that their dismissal was improper, and further refused to permit them to inspect church records or demand an accounting of church funds. Five members of a local church became concerned over the way their pastor and church board were conducting church business. Their concerns included the following: (1) church property was listed for sale without congregational approval; (2) some employees, including the pastor, received salary increases without church approval; (3) the pastor abused his church credit cards by allowing unauthorized persons to use them; (4) the board purchased vehicles without church approval; (5) church property was sold at below market value; and (6) church funds were used to pay for lavish travel and entertainment expenses, and personal items. The five members filed a lawsuit asking a civil court to issue an order giving them access to the church’s financial records. They also asked the court to prohibit the church from dismissing them as members. The five members were immediately dismissed by a unanimous vote of the church at a hastily called business meeting. The trial court later dismissed the lawsuit, and this ruling was affirmed by a state appeals court. The five former members appealed to the state supreme court, asking not only for access to church financial records but also for reinstatement as church members. The supreme court declined to reinstate the former members, and also refused to permit them to inspect the church’s financial records. The supreme court began its opinion by observing that “the courts will not interfere with the internal affairs of a religious organization except for the protection of civil or property rights.” The court concluded that “church membership” was not a “civil or property right” that a civil court could enforce: “A civil or property right that justifies the exercise of civil judicial power has long been distinguished from ecclesiastical or spiritual rights that civil courts do not adjudicate. Civil courts in this country recognize that they have no ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and church disciplinary decisions cannot be reviewed for the purpose of reinstating expelled church members.” This is true even if a church fails to follow its own constitution or bylaws in dismissing the members. “The issue of whether the church proceeding complied with church rules or custom in expelling members presents no question for our review on a claim for reinstatement,” the court concluded. The court quoted from an old Kentucky decision that frequently has been cited by other courts:
We cannot decide who ought to be members of the church, nor whether the excommunicated have been justly or unjustly, regularly or irregularly, cut off from the body of the church. We must take the fact of expulsion as conclusive proof that the persons expelled are not now members of the repudiating church; for, whether right or wrong, the act of excommunication must, as to the fact of membership, be law to this court. Shannon v. Frost, 42 Ky. 253 (1842).
The court acknowledged that a few courts have been willing to resolve the claims of dismissed church members, but it concluded that “we are strongly committed to the correctness of the decisions holding that church membership is within the ambit of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and outside that of the civil courts.”
The court also rejected the former members’ request to inspect the church’s financial records. The former members insisted that they needed access to these records to prove that church leaders diverted church funds to uses that were not authorized by the church. The court observed: “Some of their claims alleging diversion of church property to non-church uses may have been capable of invoking civil judicial relief, and some may not have been …. We need not, however, address the extent to which their claims were cognizable when they filed suit, because their expulsion mooted any claims they had as to the diversion of church property to non-church uses.” In other words, non-members no longer have “standing” to use the courts to protect their former church from an alleged diversion of funds to unauthorized uses. Only members can sue to protect church assets. The court rejected the former members’ claim that the right of inspection given to shareholders of for-profit corporations under state law applied to church members (whether current or former).
A concurring judge pointed out another reason for rejecting the former members’ claims—church members (whether current or former) can never have a “property” interest in their church or in church membership since their only contribution to the church is in the form of donations or gifts. By definition, a gift divests the donor of all interest in the donated funds or property. Fowler v. Bailey, 844 P.2d 141 (Okla. 1992).
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