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 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.
Key point 10-15. The First Amendment limits, but does not eliminate, a church's liability for defamation.
A Minnesota court ruled that it was barred by the "ecclesiastical abstention" doctrine from resolving two church members' claims that they had been defamed by statements made about them in a church disciplinary meeting.
An elderly married couple (the "plaintiffs") were longstanding members of a Lutheran church. The church leadership convened a special membership meeting to determine if the plaintiffs should be excommunicated. At this meeting, the pastor read from a prepared document and made numerous statements about the plaintiffs. These statements included:
- The plaintiffs were "actively involved in slander, gossip, and speaking against the pastor, the pastor's wife, and the church, including the claim that the pastor was stealing money from the church."
- The plaintiffs had "intentionally attacked, questioned, and discredited the integrity" of the pastor and other church leaders.
- Members had seen the plaintiffs display "anger and disrespect" toward the pastor.
- The plaintiffs had publicly engaged in "sinful behavior" inside and outside the church.
- The plaintiffs had engaged in behavior unbecoming of Christians.
- The plaintiffs had "refused to meet for the purpose of confession and forgiveness."
- The plaintiffs had "refused to show respect" toward the church's leadership.
- The plaintiffs had "led other people into sin."
- The plaintiffs had engaged in "slander and gossip" and refused to stop.
- The plaintiffs had "refused to follow the words and teachings of God."
During the same meeting, the pastor displayed a document containing additional statements about the plaintiffs. These referenced numerous alleged defamatory statements made by the plaintiffs against the pastor, and accused the plaintiffs of "breaches of confidentiality" and causing dissention among the membership.
The plaintiffs sued the pastor and church, claiming that their statements about the plaintiffs were defamatory and injured their character and reputation in their small community. The pastor and church asked the court to dismiss all of the plaintiffs' claims on the ground that they pertained to church governance, membership, and discipline and therefore the civil courts were barred by the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom from resolving them.
The trial court concluded that because all of the alleged defamatory statements "were made in the context of internal church governance and involve the reasons and motives for disciplining the plaintiffs," the court lacked jurisdiction under the so-called "ecclesiastical abstention" doctrine to resolve the plaintiff's claims. The plaintiffs appealed.
A state appeals court began its opinion by noting:
Under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction if the disputed topic is "strictly and purely ecclesiastical in its character, a matter over which the civil courts exercise no jurisdiction, a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them" (quoting the Supreme Court's decision in Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).)
The court referenced its previous decision in Schoenhals v. Mains, 504 N.W.2d 233, 235 (Minn. App. 1993). The Schoenhals case was based on a letter a married couple received from their pastor terminating their membership in their church. The pastor read the letter to the entire congregation and discussed it separately with the couple's son, who was also a member of the church. The letter set forth the following reasons for terminating the couple's membership in the church:
- A lack of financial stewardship with consistency and faithful tithing and offering over a given period of time.
- A desire to consistently create division, animosity, and strife in the fellowship.
- Direct fabrication of lies with the intent to hurt the reputation and the establishment of the church.
- Backbiting, accusations, division, and lying are some of the most serious sins found in the Bible.
The couple sued the church and its pastor alleging defamation, among other claims. The trial court dismissed the couple's claims on the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, and a state appeals court affirmed this ruling since any examination as to the truth of the pastor's statements would "require an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine and discipline" in violation of the First Amendment.
The court acknowledged that one of the pastor's statements—the accusation that the couple had fabricated lies intended to hurt the reputation and establishment of the church—appeared unrelated to church doctrine. But it reasoned that the statement "related to the church's reasons and motives for terminating the couple's membership" and therefore any examination into those reasons and motives "would also require an impermissible inquiry into church disciplinary matters." In addition, the court noted that the letter "was disseminated only to other congregation members, which strengthened its conclusion that the pastor's statements were related and limited to internal church disciplinary proceedings."
The court concluded that the plaintiffs' statements, like the statements in Schoenhals, were all related to "the church's motives and reasons for excommunicating them," and that "any examination as to the truth of these statements would be an impermissible inquiry into church doctrine under the First Amendment. Adjudicating the truth of statements concerning sin and Christian doctrine cannot be done without impermissibly intruding on issues that are strictly and purely ecclesiastical in their character."
The plaintiffs' attorney conceded that the court could not examine the truth of the statements concerning "sin" and Christian doctrine without violating the First Amendment. Nevertheless, he argued that four categories of statements—the breach of confidentiality, lying or perpetuating false information, accusing the pastor of stealing money, and the reported complaints of other congregation members concerning the plaintffs' behavior—could be resolved by the court based on secular, legal principles. The court disagreed:
This argument overlooks why the statements were made and the context in which they were made. In Schoenhals, we declined to inquire into any statements that related to a church's reasons and motive for terminating membership, even if the alleged defamatory statements appear unrelated to church doctrine on their face. Likewise here, any examination into whether the statements were truthful would be an "impermissible inquiry into church doctrine and discipline, because the statements were directly related to the church's reasons for excommunicating the plaintiffs. Furthermore, these statements all occurred during the context of internal church disciplinary proceedings … that were specifically designed to determine membership status at the church.
The court concluded: "In concluding that the plaintiffs' claims must be dismissed, we do not minimize the concerns that brought them to court … . But the separation of church and state, a principle enshrined in the Minnesota and United States Constitutions, prevents a court from determining the merits of the plaintiffs' dispute with their former church. Our decision here does not excuse any defamatory behavior that may have occurred in a sacred setting; it merely honors the separation of church and state by avoiding secular intrusion into the heart of religious concerns: who may be a member of the church; what standards of behavior are required of them; and how and when members may be disciplined."
What this means for churches
This case illustrates what many courts call the "ecclesiastical abstention" doctrine. Under this doctrine the civil courts are barred by the First Amendment religion clauses from resolving most internal church disputes. While not using the terminology "ecclesiastical abstention," the United States Supreme Court described the basic principle in a 1976 ruling in which it noted that the civil courts lack jurisdiction over internal church disputes that are "strictly and purely ecclesiastical in [their] character … a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them." Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). The concept of ecclesiastical abstention prevented the Minnesota court from resolving the plaintiffs' defamation claims.
There is one additional point in the court's decision worth noting. In the court's previous decision in the Schoenhals case, it concluded that allegedly defamatory statements disseminated only to other congregation members "strengthens" the conclusion that such statements "are related and limited to internal church disciplinary proceedings" that are beyond the jurisdiction of the civil courts. For the greatest protection, statements concerning the discipline of members should be disclosed only to church members, since this may trigger the "qualified privilege" that protects the limited disclosure of statements pertaining to matters of "common interest" from defamation and similar claims. Pfeil v. St. Matthew Church, 2015 WL 134055 (Minn. App. 2015).