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 6-10.2. According to the minority view, the civil courts may engage in "marginal review" of disputes involving the discipline of a church member, in a few limited circumstances if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity. For example, a few courts have been willing to review membership dismissals in one or more of the following limited circumstances: (1) the church interfered with a member's civil, contract, or property rights; (2) the disciplining body lacked authority to act; (3) the church failed to comply with its governing documents; (4) the church's decision was based on fraud or collusion; or (5) interpretation of contested terminology in the church's governing documents.
An Ohio court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a former member's claims of defamation and emotional distress since a resolution of these claims would not implicate church doctrine or governance. A woman in her eighties (the "plaintiff") was a 50-year member of a church. In 2010, following the church's selection of a new pastor, the plaintiff began to disagree with the direction of the church. She communicated her disagreement over various matters, including church doctrine, governance, and finances, with other church members, administrative staff, and the pastor.
After several months of discord, the pastor gave the plaintiff a letter maintaining that she had committed offenses against him and the church, including a statement that she had attempted to steal church property (a picture of the former pastor). The plaintiff claimed that the pastor informed her that her membership had been revoked and that she would not be permitted back in the church.
Nevertheless, the plaintiff attended worship services the following week, and, at the direction of the pastor, the police were notified and removed her from church property. The pastor later read the letter he had previously sent to the plaintiff to the congregation, which contained the charges against her, including the fact that she had attempted to steal church property.
The plaintiff sued the pastor, alleging "defamation per se" and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Defamation per se occurs when a statement is defamatory on its face, consisting of words which import a criminal offense involving moral turpitude, such as theft of church property. The pastor asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiff's claims stemmed from her church membership and that his allegedly wrongful acts related to ecclesiastical matters that were outside of the court's jurisdiction. The court granted the pastor's motion to dismiss the case, concluding that it had no jurisdiction to determine the claims of defamation and emotional distress because the pastor's actions were ecclesiastical matters.
A state appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling, and ordered the case to proceed to trial. The court concluded:
Courts properly decline jurisdiction on "purely ecclesiastical" grounds such as appointing or removing pastors and inquiring into church finances … . The First Amendment has been generally interpreted to mean that courts are barred from inquiring into purely ecclesiastical questions and from resolving disputes over church doctrines and practices. On the other hand, courts retain jurisdiction on "purely secular" matters, i.e., non-doctrinal disputes which can be resolved by employing neutral principles of law. Defamation per se is a legal issue that is purely secular in nature and can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law … . Thus, defamation per se is a clearly delineated set of statements that secular courts have determined are intrinsically defamatory.
Upon review, we find the plaintiff's two claims, defamation per se (based upon an indictable criminal offense involving moral turpitude) and intentional infliction of emotional distress (based upon the defamation), are secular. Therefore, basic tort principles apply. Simply because one of the parties includes a religious figure does not necessarily make the matter ecclesiastical. The record in this case establishes that the plaintiff's claims are governed by clearly defined principles of secular law and do not require an interpretation or decision involving church doctrinal matters. Accordingly, her claims are not "purely ecclesiastical" and are within the jurisdiction of the trial court. Therefore, since the issues here are secular, the trial court erred in [dismissing the case].
What This Means For Churches:
This demonstrates that not all internal church disputes are beyond the reach of the civil courts. If a dispute can be resolved on the basis of "neutral principles of law" not requiring any interpretation of church doctrine, some courts are willing to resolve them. But many other courts disagree, especially when a dispute involves the status of church membership. Most, if not all, courts would agree that a church's decision to revoke a person's church membership implicates doctrine and church governance and therefore could not be reviewed by the civil courts. Many courts have expanded this principle to include other bases of liability, such as defamation and invasion of privacy, that are collateral to the decision to revoke the person's membership. Ciganik v. York, 2013 WL 6881611 (Ohio App. 2013).