First Amendment Bars Court from Resolving Dismissed Member’s Lawsuit

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevents courts from reviewing disputes concerning “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required.”

Key point 6-06.4. Church officers and directors can be removed from office in the manner authorized by the church’s governing documents. It is common for church bylaws to give the membership the authority to remove officers and directors who engage in specified misconduct or change their doctrinal position.

A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dismissed member’s lawsuit against his former church.

A church member (the “plaintiff”) had served as a church deacon for three years when the pastor and deacon-board chairman called a special meeting to accuse him of heresy. The plaintiff asserted that the pastor and chairman had defamed him by falsely accusing him “of being a Heretical Apostate committing acts against [the] Church, Spiritual Beliefs, Faith and God orally and publicly in the presence of members of [the] Church.”

In further support of his defamation claim, the plaintiff claimed that the pastor and chairman had written an open letter, made available to all members of the church, disparaging the plaintiff’s good name. That letter, signed by the pastor and deacon chairman, told the plaintiff that his membership was terminated. The letter explained that the plaintiff’s public and private “heretical statements” regarding the inerrancy of the Bible and the divinity of Jesus Christ caused the termination. The letter also noted that the church’s action “was required to maintain the integrity of the church’s doctrine, and to protect the church from false teaching.”

The plaintiff sued the pastor, chairman, and board for defamation, and sought $3 million in damages. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine which generally bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes over questions of doctrine or practice.

A state appeals court agreed with the trial court’s ruling:

The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also known as the church autonomy doctrine, is based on the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The doctrine prevents courts from reviewing disputes concerning “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required.”

A lawsuit does not, of course, become a theological controversy just because one of the litigants is a church. We therefore must consider “the nature of the dispute and whether it can be decided on neutral principles of secular law without a court intruding upon, interfering with, or deciding church doctrine. . . .” We conclude that resolving any claims in the plaintiff’s . . . complaint would require a court to intrude into church doctrine in violation of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Therefore, the doctrine prevents litigation of this dispute and the lower court lacks jurisdiction to proceed.

What this means for churches

This case is an excellent example of the impact of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine (sometimes called the “church autonomy” doctrine) on church disputes. Internal church disputes that concern “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them” are beyond the reach of the civil courts, and cannot be revived by appeals to “neutral principles of law.” Springhill Missionary Baptist Church v. Mobley, 251 So.3d 281 (Fla. App. 2018).

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