Federal Court Barred from Resolving Dismissed Member’s Lawsuit

Ex-member unable to sue church leaders for misappropriation of church funds.

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.

A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed church member's lawsuit accusing church leaders of financial improprieties and breach of their fiduciary duties. An individual (the "plaintiff"), on behalf of himself and all members of his church, filed a lawsuit in which he alleged that the pastor and board of trustees (the "defendants") were guilty of a misappropriation of church funds and a breach of their fiduciary duties. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the pastor had dismissed the plaintiff's church membership, thereby depriving him of "standing" to sue the pastor or board. The plaintiff appealed.

A federal appeals court affirmed the district court's dismissal of the case. It began its opinion by noting:

The First Amendment "severely circumscribes" the role that civil courts may play in resolving disputes touching on matters of faith. Civil courts encroach on the autonomy of religious institutions when they inquire into ecclesiastical law and governance. The non-entanglement principle, anchored in First Amendment values, thus "requires that civil courts defer to the resolution of issues of religious doctrine or polity by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization" (quoting the Supreme Court's decision in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979). In so doing, civil courts accept decisions of the highest religious decision-maker as binding fact, so long as those decisions are not tainted by fraud or collusion.

When a church dispute "turns on a question devoid of doctrinal implications, civil courts may employ neutral principles of law to adjudicate the controversy." The court concluded that the present controversy over the plaintiff's membership in the church and his standing to pursue his claims in court could not be resolved solely with reference to neutral principles of law involving no consideration of church doctrine and therefore were not capable of civil court review. In particular the court noted that among the qualifications of membership recited in the church's bylaws was "a life being consistent with the doctrine of the [church]." This requirement "makes membership in the church an ecclesiastical matter, for it conditions an individual's membership on living in conformity with the doctrine of the church. We know of no neutral principle of law that could assist in evaluating whether a member lives his or her life in a manner consistent with church doctrine."

The church's bylaws confer upon the pastor the power to determine membership status, and to excommunicate members "for the good of the church." The court concluded that the pastor's authority to excommunicate members

falls squarely within the realm of matters insulated from civil court review. As codified in its central governance document, the church entrusts the [pastor] with power to decide when it is in the best interest of the congregation to terminate an individual's membership. Determining when excommunication is "necessary for the good of the church" undoubtedly involves a complex balancing of spiritual and pragmatic considerations, all properly left to the highest church authority, not civil courts. We are not competent to upset judgments made by the pastor in this doctrinally sensitive area, for there are no neutral principles of law that shed light on the membership composition necessary for the good of the church.

Lastly, the court rejected the plaintiff's claim that the pastor's attempt to terminate his membership was invalid because he failed to follow the church's bylaws. The court noted that "the Supreme Court held in 1976 that the First Amendment does not permit civil court review of the arbitrariness of ecclesiastical actions." Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

What this means for churches

This case illustrates the view of most courts: The First Amendment bars civil court review of church membership determinations that cannot be resolved with reference to "neutral principles of law" that do not implicate church doctrine or polity. Askew v. Trustees, 684 F.3d 413 (3rd Cir. 2012).

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