Dispute Over Minister’s Removal Cannot Go to Court

Civil courts cannot rule on ecclesiastical matters.

Franzen v. Poulos, 604 So.2d 1260 (Fla. App. 3 Dist. 1992)

Key point: The civil courts are compelled by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom to refrain from interfering with the internal decisions of hierarchical churches, including decisions regarding the discipline or dismissal of clergy.

A Florida appeals court ruled that the civil courts have no authority to intervene in a local church dispute involving the removal of a minister and the church's compliance with its own constitution.

Allegations of misconduct were made against the pastor of a local church affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. These allegations resulted in a dispute among congregational members regarding the retention of the pastor. The local church council (the governing board of the local church) referred these allegations to a denominational synod for investigation.

After investigation, a meeting of the entire congregation was scheduled. At this meeting, the bishop (the chief administrative officer of the synod) was to present recommendations for resolution of the internal church dispute, and a vote was to be taken on whether or not to retain the pastor. The bishop established "ground rules" for determining who would be eligible to vote (under the local church and synod constitutions) at the meeting. A few days before the scheduled meeting of the congregation, the pastor filed a lawsuit asking a court to block the meeting.

The pastor claimed that the church council had not followed the church constitution in forwarding allegations of misconduct to the synod, and that the bishop might manipulate the voting constituency at the meeting in a way that would result in the pastor's dismissal. Two days before the scheduled meeting, a trial court issued an order permitting the meeting to proceed but limiting the voting constituency to those persons who were church members as of a specified date (60 days prior to the meeting).

The trial court based its involvement in the case on the fact that the church was incorporated under state law. The effect of this order was to exclude 39 persons from voting who had become members within 60 days of the meeting. These 39 members were allowed to cast ballots, but they were not counted. The congregation voted on a motion do dismiss the pastor. When the votes were counted under the conditions specified by the trial court, the motion failed by 2 votes to achieve the two-thirds majority required by the church constitution. However, if the 39 excluded votes were included, the motion would have easily passed. Accordingly, the trial court's order directly affected the result of the election.

The church council and bishop appealed the trial court's order and the election. A state appeals court reversed the ruling of the trial court. It observed:

[T]he temporary injunction should not have been issued. The trial court took the position that because the local church is incorporated under Florida law, "the court has jurisdiction over the subject matter of this case and the members of the corporation." The court exercised that jurisdiction by deciding which persons would be entitled to vote at the [church meeting]. While the trial court is ordinarily empowered to adjudicate questions of Florida corporate law, a first amendment exception applies to matters of internal governance of a hierarchical religious organization. As summarized by the 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 the pastor's lawsuit in this case "sought to inject the court into the internal governance of the Lutheran Church, a hierarchical religious organization of the type described in the Serbian Eastern Orthodox decision." The pastor argued that the Supreme Court's ruling (quoted above) in the Serbian Eastern Orthodox case, requiring the civil courts to defer to the rulings of hierarchical bodies, only applied if a final decision has been rendered by the highest ecclesiastical authorities of a hierarchical church.

The court disagreed: "That is plainly not the case. As the Serbian Eastern Orthodox decision clearly indicates, the judiciary is obliged to defer to the hierarchical church's internal decisional processes on matters of internal church discipline and government." The court rejected several court rulings relied upon by the pastor in support of his position on the ground that they all involved "independent congregations which are not part of a hierarchical church organization."

What is the significance of this ruling? Consider the following points. First, it represents a broad recognition of the autonomy of churches to deal with internal matters of discipline and church governance without interference by the civil courts. In this sense, this case will be a useful precedent. Second, the court limited its ruling to hierarchical churches. This was unfortunate. While the Supreme Court's decision in the Serbian Eastern Orthodox did involve a hierarchical church, it is by no means clear that the Court intended to limit its ruling to hierarchical churches.

The principle the Court announced, that churches should be free to resolve questions of discipline and church governance free from civil court interference, transcends the context of hierarchical churches and equally applies to congregational or independent churches. Of the few courts that have addressed this issue directly, most have applied the Serbian Eastern Orthodox ruling to congregational as well as hierarchical churches. Third, the court correctly rejected the trial court's conclusion that the mere fact of church incorporation under state law exposes a church's internal disputes to civil court jurisdiction.

As the appeals court noted, "[w]hile the trial court is ordinarily empowered to adjudicate questions of Florida corporate law, a first amendment exception applies to matters of internal governance of a hierarchical religious organization."

See also "Church elections," Bacher v. Metcalf, 611 So.2d 1030 (Ala. 1992).

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