Internal Church Disputes

Courts cannot interfere in ecclesiastical matters.

Church Law and Tax1992-05-01Recent Developments

Officers, Directors, and Trustees

An Illinois appeals court concluded that it had no authority to resolve an internal church dispute regarding the membership of a church’s board of deacons. A local congregation adopted bylaws in 1988 that conflicted with the provisions of the hierarchical denomination with which it was affiliated. Among other things, the bylaws of the local church were never approved by the parent organization, and did not contain a statement that the church would be an “indivisible and inseparable part” of the denomination. The church elected deacons under the 1988 bylaws, and these individuals later were deposed by the denomination. A lawsuit was brought in civil court to determine the legal authority of the deposed deacons. A trial court ruled that it had no authority to resolve such a dispute, and the case was appealed to a state appeals court. The appeals court began its opinion with the following observation:

The court, as a governmental agency of the state, is charged generally with the task of resolving disputes. Its authority to do so, however, in matters of internal church disputes, including those which concern the control or ownership of property, is narrowly circumscribed by the first amendment’s guarantee that the right to the free exercise of religion will not be abridged. By reason of this limitation, civil courts have no authority to resolve church disputes which turn on matters of church doctrine, practice, polity, or administration …. Where doctrinal controversy is not involved in a church dispute, however, mandatory deference to religious authority is not required by the first amendment, and the court may choose from a variety of approaches in resolving the dispute. One such approach, the “neutral principles of law” approach … has been recognized, and where appropriate, applied in Illinois. Under the neutral principles approach, the court objectively examines pertinent church charters, constitutions and bylaws, deeds, state statutes, and other evidence and resolves the matter the same as it would a secular dispute.

The deposed deacons argued that the court should resolve this dispute since it did not involve “doctrinal matters” and could be resolved on the basis of non-doctrinal “neutral principles of law.” The court disagreed. It observed: “In our opinion, resolution of the questions of who the true members of the board of deacons of the Chicago parish are and which bylaws govern it would require this court to delve, impermissibly, into matters of church doctrine and polity.” The court relied on the following language from a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court: “[W]here resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry by civil courts into religious law and polity, the [first amendment] mandates that civil courts shall not disturb the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal within a church of hierarchical polity, but must accept such decisions as binding on them, in their application to the religious issues of doctrine or polity before them.” Accordingly, the court had no authority to resolve the dismissed deacons’ claim that their dismissal was improper. It rejected the dismissed deacons’ claim that this case involved secular issues that could be resolved using neutral principles of law. In rejecting this contention the court observed: “[T]he real questions presented here are: Who governs? And by what rules? Stated otherwise, which of the factions should be recognized as the true members of the board of deacons?” St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church v. Tanios, 572 N.E.2d 283 (Ill. App. 1991).

See Personal injuries—on church property and during church activities, Karen S. v. Streitferdt, 568 N.Y.S.2d 946 (A.D. 1 Dept. 1991).

See Also: Removal of Officers, Directors, and Trustees

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