Dismissed Members Sue Church

Court rules that it cannot interfere.

Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment from interfering with a church's decision to dismiss a member as a result of his suing another member. Further, the courts will not resolve a dismissed member's claim that he was defamed by the pastor.

A Louisiana court ruled that it could not resolve a lawsuit brought by dismissed church members who claimed that their church acted improperly in dismissing them for suing the church.

When the members' request to inspect church records was denied by church leaders, they asked a court to order the church to allow them to inspect certain records. The church's pastor dismissed the members for filing a legal action against the church, and removed their names from the membership rolls. The pastor acted pursuant to an "essential tenet" of the United Pentecostal Church that prohibits Christians taking other Christians to court.

The dismissed members sued their pastor and church, claiming that they had been unjustly and illegally dismissed as members of the church. They also claimed that the pastor had defamed them and intentionally caused them emotional distress. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the members appealed. A state appeals court affirmed the trial court's decision, noting that:

It is evident to us that this dispute is rooted in an ecclesial [sic] tenet of the United Pentecostal Church which prohibits members from suing fellow church members. Certainly, in civil law the [members] had a right to pursue their [initial lawsuit demand seeking inspection of church records].

However, we hasten to add that the religious repercussions that were set into motion as a result of the exercise of their civil right is another matter beyond the reach of judicial authority. In that light, anything we might consider in [an resolving this appeal] would require us to apply, interpret, and comment upon the United Pentecostal Church tenet against the institution of suits among church members. Based upon the Constitution of the United States … and the Constitution of the State of Louisiana … such action would constitute an impermissible interference in the ecclesiastical matters of the United Pentecostal Church. We decline to do so.

The court quoted with approval from the trial court's opinion: "[T]he adjudication of whether or not the [members'] removal from the membership rolls and disfellowship was legal involves the inquiry into the propriety of religious disciplinary proceedings. The court is instructed [by the United States Supreme Court] that "constitutional concepts of due process, involving secular notions of fundamental fairness" cannot be borrowed from civil law and impressed upon church governance consistent with church—state separation."

The court also noted that "church members are not entitled to rely on the incorporation of a church under state laws as the basis for resort to the courts for redress of allegedly violated rights, if these rights require the determination of ecclesiastical matters."

The court concluded that the dismissed members could not sue their pastor for defamation or emotional distress, since the pastor's allegedly defamatory comments were intertwined with his decision to dismiss the members for violating the church's religious teachings involving suing other Christians. Glass v. First United Pentecostal Church, 676 So.2d 724 (La. App. 1996).

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