• Key point: The civil courts will not resolve lawsuits brought by dismissed church members challenging the validity of their dismissal.
• A Minnesota appeals court ruled that a church member could not challenge his dismissal in court. In 1988, the pastor of a local church asked two church members (a husband and wife) to sign a guaranty on behalf of the church, guarantying payment of certain debts. The pastor represented to them that if the church ever defaulted on its debts the church would sell its property and use the proceeds to pay back any funds the couple advanced pursuant to the guaranty. The couple signed a guaranty agreement. A few months later, they were notified that the church had been late in making several payments on its bank loans. The couple retained an attorney and discontinued their contact with the church. They did not notify the church of any intent to terminate their membership. Their attorney did write the pastor and requested that the couple be released from their guaranty commitment. The pastor responded by sending the couple a letter dismissing them from membership in the church. The pastor cited the following reasons for terminating their membership:
1. A lack of financial stewardship with consistency and faithful tithing and offering over a given period of time.
2. A desire on your part to consistently create division, animosity and strife in the fellowship.
3. Direct fabrication of lies with the intent to hurt the reputation and the establishment of [the church] and congregation.
4. Backbiting, railing accusations, division, lying, are some of the most serious sins found in the Bible. Where, by all appearances and related conversations, you have fallen into all of the categories.
The pastor’s letter was read to the entire congregation. Several months later the pastor met with the couple, and admitted that no proceeds from the sale of church property would be shared with them. The couple then filed a lawsuit against the pastor and church, alleging fraud, defamation, and breach of contract. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the couple appealed.
A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. It began its opinion by observing that the first amendment “precludes judicial review of claims involving core questions of church discipline and internal governance.” The court concluded that the couple’s claims all involved core questions of church discipline that it was not able to resolve. With regard to the couple’s defamation claim, the court pointed out that a defamatory statement must be false and that “since an examination of the truth of [the pastor’s] statements would require an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine and discipline, the [trial court] did not err in concluding that the defamation claim is precluded by the first amendment.” The court acknowledged that
while [the pastor’s] statement that [the couple] had engaged in “[d]irect fabrication of lies with the intent to hurt the reputation and the establishment of [the church] and congregation” appears unrelated to church doctrine on its face, the statement nevertheless relates to the church’s reasons and motives for terminating the [couple’s] membership. Examination of those reasons and motives would also require an impermissible inquiry into church disciplinary matters.
The court added that “the fact that the letter was disseminated only to other members of the church strengthens the conclusion that [the pastor’s] statements involved and were limited to church doctrine.” The court also refused to resolve the couple’s contention that the pastor had engaged in fraud: “The fraud claim in this case is based on [the pastor’s] representations that if the [couple] signed a guaranty and the church defaulted, then the amount of the proceeds from the sale of the church would be [given to them]. Since [the pastor’s] representations are based upon the occurrence of several future events, we agree with the [trial court] that the fraud claim is insufficient as a matter of law.” Finally, the court pointed out that the couple could not recover for fraud since they had not been damaged by the pastor’s allegedly fraudulent representations. It noted that “there is no evidence that the church has defaulted on its debt or that there has been any legal action taken against the [couple] on the guaranty.” Schoenhalls v. Main, 504 N.W.2d 233 (Minn. App. 1993).
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