• Key point. It is the prevailing view that the civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, particularly if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.
• Key point. A small minority of courts are willing to review claims of wrongful dismissal by ministers if no inquiry into religious doctrine is required.
An Illinois court ruled that the first amendment did not prevent it from resolving a dispute over the removal of an officer by a religious organization since it could do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine. A small number of members of a mosque convened a meeting at which the president was removed allegedly because “he was no longer living according to Islamic religious tenets.” The ousted president challenged the legal validity of this meeting in court, claiming that it was not called or conducted in accordance with the mosque’s bylaws, or with state nonprofit corporation law. The members who called the meeting insisted that a civil court had no jurisdiction over internal religious disputes involving the removal of officers. A trial court agreed, and dismissed the lawsuit. The former president appealed, and a state appeals court ruled that the case should not have been dismissed. The appeals court began its opinion by observing that the civil courts may not resolve internal church disputes involving “questions of religious doctrine, faith, or polity.” However, under the so—called “neutral principles of law” approach, the civil courts may “objectively examine pertinent church charters, constitutions and bylaws, deeds, state statutes, and other evidence to resolve the matter the same as it would a secular dispute.” The court then applied this principle to the present dispute:
In [this case] the court was not required to examine religious doctrine or practice to determine whether [the ousted president] had been properly removed as president and chairman of the board of directors of the corporation. The corporation’s bylaws and the statute under which it was organized clearly set forth the procedure for appointment and removal of directors, the notice requirements for directors’ meetings, and other attendant corporate matters. These instruments constituted the rules which the members of the mosque chose to be bound by before the dispute arose. The allegations in [the former president’s lawsuit] required the court to decide only whether those procedures had been complied with, and not whether the [former president] was living as a good Muslim. Thus, the trial court was not required to … rule on an ecclesiastical question ….
Accordingly, we hold that the trial court should have utilized the “neutral principles of law” analysis in ruling on [the former president’s lawsuit], requiring only the application of objective legal principles to the corporation’s governing documents and the interpretation of the Illinois Not for Profit Corporation Act, without reference or reliance upon Islamic religious doctrine. This analysis would have enabled the court to resolve the secular question of whether [the members] had complied with the procedural requirements for removal of the [president].
Application. This case illustrates that some courts are willing to resolve disputes involving the removal of clergy, so long as they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine or practice. However, this is a minority view. Most courts have ruled that they are barred by the first amendment from getting involved in deciding “who will preach from the pulpit,” whether or not such disputes can be resolved without inquiring into religious doctrine. People ex rel. Muhammad v. Muhammad—Rahmah, 682 N.E.2d 336 (Ill. App. 1997). [ Termination]
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