• Key point: The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, especially if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.
• A federal district court in Minnesota dismissed a minister’s lawsuit alleging that church officials had defamed him. A denomination decided not to elevate a congregation to mission status, thereby cutting off all subsidies and in effect terminating the minister who served the congregation. The minister sued his denomination for defamation, alleging that denominational officials published both oral and written defamatory statements about him that damaged his reputation and professional status. The denomination claimed that the civil courts lacked jurisdiction to resolve religious disputes such as this. The court agreed with the denomination and dismissed the lawsuit. It noted that “the United States Supreme Court has determined that civil courts generally may not inquire into a religious organization’s activities on matters of religious doctrine or authority and that courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over most disputes stemming from a religious organization’s actions.” It quoted from the Supreme Court’s decision in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 423 U.S. 696 (1976):
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.
The court quoted from a number of federal court rulings refusing to resolve lawsuits brought by dismissed ministers, including Scharon v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Presbyterian Hospitals, 929 F.2d 360 (8th Cir. 1991):
Personnel decisions by church-affiliated institutions affecting clergy are per se religious matters and cannot be reviewed by civil courts, for to review such decisions would require the courts to determine the meaning of religious doctrine and canonical law and to impose a secular court’s view of whether in the context of the particular case religious doctrine and canonical law support the decision the church authorities have made. This is precisely the kind of judicial second-guessing of decision-making by religious organizations that the free exercise [of religion] clause forbids.
The court rejected the minister’s claim that resolving only a defamation claim would be permissible:
Although factual scenarios might exist where resolution of a defamation action against a religious organization would not require the court to undertake an inquiry in violation of the first amendment, this case does not present such a situation. [The minister’s] defamation claim challenges [the denomination’s] authority … to comment on [the minister’s] actions and abilities as a … minister. Resolution of … the defamation claim would require the court to review the [denomination’s] bases for terminating him, an ecclesiastical concern, and the veracity of the [denomination’s] statements. The court determines that such an inquiry would implicate the concerns expressed in the first amendment. Based on that determination, the court concludes that it has no jurisdiction over this matter. Farley v. Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, 821 F. Supp. 1286 (D. Minn. 1993).
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