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.
In 2006, a man (the “Plaintiff”) began teaching social studies at a parochial school (the “Cathedral”) under a contract renewed annually.
In 2017, he married another man who teaches at a seminary prep school (the “School.”)
The Cathedral and School operated within the same archdiocese.
In mid-2019, the archdiocese ordered that both men be terminated because of their same-sex marriage.
The School declined the archdiocese’s order on the basis that the men were in a “civilly-recognized same sex marriage.”
The archdiocese then revoked the School’s status as a Catholic institution in accordance with canonical requirements.
The School no longer could use a name incorporating the word “Catholic,” and lost recognition as a Catholic institution by the archdiocese. This included exclusion from The Official Catholic Directory.
However, the Cathedral obeyed the archdiocese’s order and fired the Plaintiff.
The Cathedral president told the Plaintiff the decision to fire him was based entirely on the fact that “the Archbishop directed that we [Cathedral] can’t have someone with a public same-sex marriage here and remain Catholic.”
In an open letter to the “Cathedral family,” the Cathedral noted its 100-year history.
Based upon 22 months of discussions with the archdiocese, the Cathedral said the archbishop was clear that, by retaining the Plaintiff, the Cathedral would forfeit its Catholic identity, given the Plaintiff’s decision to live in contradiction to Catholic teachings on marriage.
The letter continued: “We are committed to educating our students in the tenets of the Catholic faith.” It stated further that “to remain a Catholic School, Cathedral must follow the direct guidance given to us by the Archbishop and separate from the teacher.”
The Plaintiff sued the archdiocese, and a trial court dismissed the lawsuit on First Amendment grounds. The Plaintiff appealed.
Church autonomy doctrine barred the claim from civil court
The Indiana Supreme Court agreed with the trial court.
It concluded that the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred by the church autonomy doctrine.
It noted that this doctrine “deals with a church’s First Amendment right to autonomy in making decisions regarding [its] own internal affairs,” including matters of faith, doctrine, and internal governance.
The Court continued:
The archdiocese’s decision whether a school maintains its Catholic identity is an internal matter that concerns both church policy and administration.
The gist of plaintiff’s claims is communication between the archbishop and Cathedral, a Catholic school, over a matter involving church discipline and doctrine… . Whether and when the archdiocese would continue to recognize Cathedral as Catholic is at the heart of the communication… . The directive was … a choice the archdiocese gave Cathedral.
It could either retain its recognition as a Catholic school by following the archdiocese’s instruction on what was required to be recognized as a Catholic school or forfeit continued recognition.
This choice reflects the archdiocese’s authority to declare which schools are Catholic … .
The Court quoted with approval from its 1888 ruling in Dwenger v. Geary, 14 N.E. 903 (1888): “No power save that of the church can rightfully declare who is a Catholic. The question is purely one of church government and discipline, and must be determined by the proper ecclesiastical authorities.”
What this means for churches
A church has two principal defenses when terminating employees for violating the church’s employment standards.
The first is the “ministerial exception” doctrine. It pertains to employment disputes between churches and minister-employees.
It prohibits courts from resolving such disputes, according to numerous court rulings.
The second is the “church autonomy” doctrine. The Indiana Supreme Court used this doctrine as the basis of its decision in this case.
The church autonomy doctrine generally bars civil courts from resolving internal church disputes over matters of “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.”
As the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1871:
The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 729 (1871).
Several courts have cautioned that the immunity provided by the church autonomy doctrine is not absolute. It does not apply to purely secular decisions, even when made by churches.
Payne-Elliott v. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, 193 N.E.3d 1009 (Ind. 2022)