Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Bars Court from Intervention in Dispute over Church Bylaw Compliance

Court could not adjudicate this case without interfering in inherently ecclesiastical matters of pastoral selection and church discipline.

Key point 2-01.4.
The selection of a minister is an ecclesiastical decision that the civil courts ordinarily will not review—even when it is alleged that a church failed to follow its own internal procedures in the selection of a minister, or the selection process was discriminatory.

Key point 6-10.1. According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church’s discipline of a member since the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding who are members in good standing of a church.

Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.

A Texas court ruled that the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine prevented it from resolving an internal church dispute regarding a church’s compliance with its bylaws in selecting a new pastor and dismissing several dissident members.

In January 2012, a pastor died and a dispute arose over the church’s efforts to fill the pastoral vacancy. With respect to a vacancy, the church’s bylaws provided:

In the event of a vacancy, a pulpit committee composed of Deacons and members (five people on the committee) shall be appointed by the church to seek out a suitable Pastor and their recommendations will constitute a nomination though any member has the privilege of naming other nominations according to the policy established by the church. The committee shall bring to the consideration of the church one minister at a time. Elections shall be by secret ballot; an affirmative vote of three-fourth of those present being necessary for a choice. The Chairman of Deacons and Trustees shall have the right to meet with the Pulpit Committee at any time.

The secretary of the church board convened a meeting to elect a pulpit committee. The pulpit committee was comprised of the board secretary and other individuals and eventually selected a nominee for pastor. However, other members of the church, including the Chairman of the Deacons and the Chairman of the Trustees, opposed the actions of the pulpit committee.

On October 13, 2012, a meeting was held at which the deacons, trustees, and congregation voted to adopt a “resolution to restore order in the church.” The resolution found that the pulpit committee “has engaged in a campaign of intimidation, threats, assault, falsehoods, and manipulation.” The resolution expelled from church membership persons involved with the pulpit committee on the grounds that they “have hurt the Church, decreased its membership, distracted from its Christian mission, and continue to cause damage to the Church.” A new pastor was elected and installed a month later, on November 17, 2012.

The dismissed members (the “plaintiffs”) sued the church and sought monetary damages based on their expulsion. They argued that the church had failed to follow its bylaws in selecting a new pastor. The church claimed that the pulpit committee was properly constituted under the church’s bylaws and that the dismissed members had violated the church’s bylaws by interfering with the pulpit committee; holding unauthorized meetings; expelling the dismissed members from membership and changing the locks so that they could not access the church; and selecting the new pastor.

The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it lacked jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ claims under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine because adjudicating the claims would require the trial court to review the church’s discipline of the dismissed members and to impermissibly involve itself in the pastoral selection process. After a hearing, the court dismissed the case.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. It began its decision by noting that the First Amendment’s guaranty of religious freedom “precludes civil courts from delving into matters focused on theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them.” The court continued: “Courts do not have jurisdiction to decide questions of an ecclesiastical or inherently religious nature, so as to those questions they must defer to decisions of appropriate ecclesiastical decision makers.”

The courts are not precluded from resolving all church disputes. They may, for example, “apply neutral principles of law to non-ecclesiastical issues involving religious entities in the same manner as they apply those principles to other entities and issues… . Thus, courts are to apply neutral principles of law to issues such as land titles, trusts, and corporate formation, governance, and dissolution, even when religious entities are involved.”

The court conceded that “the line between required judicial action and forbidden judicial intrusion will not always be distinct because many disputes require courts to analyze church documents and organizational structures to some degree.

The plaintiffs insisted that their claims arose solely from “the church’s failure to abide by non-ecclesiastical terms of the church’s bylaws and, therefore, the trial court had jurisdiction to adjudicate the case under neutral principles of law.” According to the plaintiffs, the questions they raised—including whether the church complied with church bylaws in electing the new pastor and whether the church acted properly in dismissing the plaintiffs—”were non-ecclesiastical because they are governed by non-ecclesiastical provisions in the church’s corporate documents.” The court disagreed:

The mere fact that a church’s corporate documents—here, its bylaws—prescribe a pastoral selection process does not make cases involving a pastoral selection dispute categorically reviewable by a civil court. Instead, whether neutral principles may be applied to a claim turns on the substance of the issues it raises. Consequently, the fact that the church’s bylaws in this case contain provisions governing the process for pastoral selection does not compel the conclusion that a dispute over that process is reviewable …. Here … [the plaintiffs’] claims are inextricably intertwined with the selection of the church’s new pastor and the church’s expulsion of members—two issues long recognized to be inherently ecclesiastical and of prime importance to the exercise of religious liberty ….

In sum, although plaintiffs characterize their claims as purely secular because they rest on provisions of the church’s corporate documents, the trial court could not adjudicate this case without interfering in inherently ecclesiastical matters of pastoral selection and church discipline. Therefore, we hold that the trial court correctly concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over the case under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

What this means for churches

This case is important because of the court’s conclusion that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies to the interpretation of a church’s governing documents if doing so would implicate “ecclesiastical matters of prime importance to the exercise of religious liberty,” which the court concluded, include pastoral selection and the discipline of members. Moultin v. Baptist Church, 498 S.W.3d 143 (Tex. App. 2016).

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