Lawsuit Challenges Church’s Selection of Pastor

Court rules that it cannot intervene.

Church Law and Tax 1997-09-01


Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving internal church disputes involving ecclesiastical issues such as the selection of clergy.

Key point. The civil courts will not resolve lawsuits brought by church members who fail to pursue or “exhaust” their remedies under their own church’s constitution or bylaws.

An Ohio court ruled that it had no legal authority to resolve a lawsuit challenging a church’s selection of a new pastor. Certain members of a church were dissatisfied with the method in which their pastor was chosen. They sued their church and its deacons and pastor, asking a court to declare the selection of the pastor “null and void” and to enter an order forbidding the church from installing him or paying him any compensation. The members insisted that the case involved “secular” matters which a civil court could address. A state appeals court disagreed. It began by noting that the church’s constitution provided a remedy for internal disputes regarding the pastor-the disgruntled members could take their claim before the entire church membership. This step had not been followed. The court concluded:

It is well—settled that civil courts lack jurisdiction to determine purely ecclesiastical or spiritual disputes of a church or religious organization. Where the members have consented to a plan of church government which provides the means for appeal for such disputes, as in this case, the matter is an ecclesiastical one. [This lawsuit] is thus ecclesiastical in nature [and must be dismissed].

Application. This case is important for two reasons. First, it illustrates the general rule that the civil courts will not resolve internal church disputes regarding the status of a minister. Second, it illustrates that the civil courts will not resolve a legal claim by church members who have failed to pursue (or “exhaust”) their remedies under their church’s constitution. Buchanan v. Second Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, 1996 WL 417135 (Ohio App. 1996). [Initiating the Pastor-Church Relationship, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes, The Free Exercise Clause]

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