Dismissed Member Sues Church

The First Amendment prevents courts from resolving such cases.

Church Law and Tax 1991-01-01 Recent Developments

Church Membership

A federal district court in Ohio ruled that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a lawsuit brought by a dismissed church member against her former church. A member of a local Baptist church had been active in church activities for 40 years. In 1984, the church’s pastor resigned, and the member assisted him in relocating to another church. The new pastor intepreted the member’s actions in assisting the former pastor as a resignation of her membership, and he transferred her membership to the former pastor’s new church. The member insisted that she was merely “helping a friend,” and had no intention of resigning her membership or transfering to the new church. Nevertheless, the church terminated her membership and treated her like a non-member, refusing to allow her to vote in church elections and attempting to bar her from attending church services. The former member filed a lawsuit, asking a court to rule that she was still a member in good standing since the church had acted “arbitrarily” in dismissing her. She also sought monetary damages for “emotional distress.” The federal court began its opinion by observing that it was being asked to resolve “what the courts have recognized as the most intractable of disputes—a church fight.” The court observed that the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving church disputes that “require extensive inquiry into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance.” It acknowledged that there were a few narrow exceptions to this rule. However, it emphasized that the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the civil courts cannot disturb the decision of a church tribunal on the ground that the decision was “arbitrary” (i.e., the church tribunal did not follow its stated procedure). It observed that the Supreme Court’s ruling involved a “hierarchical” church, but it could “discern no justification for refusing to apply the … analysis and reasoning of the Supreme Court … involving hierarchical churches to this case” (involving a “congregational” church). As a result, if the church’s decision to terminate the woman’s membership was a matter of “ecclesiastical cognizance,” then the constitution prohibits the civil courts from addressing the member’s allegations whether or not the church was hierarchical or congregational in structure. The court concluded that it could think of no matter that would “more directly implicate ecclesiastical considerations” than church membership determinations. As a result, “this court must not interfere with the fundamental ecclesiastical concern of determining who is and who is not a [church] member.” It added that “the mere expulsion from a religious community is not a harm for which courts can grant a remedy.” The court acknowledged that the dismissed member insisted that the church had violated its own internal rules in terminating her membership. However, it insisted that the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling prevented the civil courts from reviewing and overruling church decisions solely on the ground that the church failed to follow its own internal rules and procedures. Such decisions, though “arbitrary,” are not reviewable by the civil courts. To rule otherwise would “undermine the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry.” The court added: “By its very nature, the inquiry which the [former member] would have the court undertake into the circumstances of her termination plunges an inquisitor into a maelstrom of church policy, administration, and governance. It is an inquiry barred by the [constitution] … even if the termination was a simple mistake or was arbitrary and not in accordance with the procedures set out in the [church’s] constitution.” The court also rejected the former member’s claim for money damages based on her alleged “emotional distress.” Such a claim is “so inextricably linked” with matters of “ecclesiastical cognizance” protected by the constitution, that it is barred. The “constitutional guaranty of the free exercise of religion requires that society tolerate the type of harms suffered by the [former member] as a price well worth paying to safeguard the right of religious difference that all citizens enjoy.” This case is significant for the following reasons: (1) It recognizes that churches have broad authority and independence in membership determinations. Such determinations have constitutional protection. While it would be unwise to assume that this authority is without limit, it is nevertheless a substantial freedom. (2) The court applied the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision to a congregational church. The Supreme Court’s decision applied to a hierarchical church, and some have questioned whether or not the ruling would apply with equal force to congregational churches. Of course, only the Supreme Court can say whether or not it intended its earlier ruling to apply to congregational churches. However, until it does so, decisions by the lower federal courts to apply the ruling to congregational churches are significant precedents. Burgess v. Rock Creek Baptist Church, 734 F. Supp. 30 (D.D.C. 1990).

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