• Key point. The first amendment guaranty of religious freedom protects internal church decisions regarding the removal of officers from being reviewed or overturned by the civil courts.
A Missouri court ruled that it was prevented by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by ousted church officers challenging the legal validity of their removal. As a result of internal conflicts a church amended its bylaws so that it was governed by six officers. These six persons soon divided into two opposing groups of three officers, which led to a stalemate on many issues. One of these groups attempted to appoint a seventh member to the board, and then these four persons ousted the other three officers. The three ousted officers sued the remaining officers, claiming that their ouster was invalid. They argued that the contest was between two factions within a nonprofit corporation disagreeing over which group was the duly elected and qualified officers of the church, and this issue was not a “purely ecclesiastical” matter that was off limits to the civil courts. The matter could be resolved simply by reviewing the church’s bylaws. The other group of officers insisted that the dispute was an ecclesiastical matter. They asserted that whether an individual is properly appointed or removed as an officer of a church is subject to ecclesiastical, not corporate, law and therefore “callings, ordinations and removals” of such positions are not within the jurisdiction of the civil courts. A trial court agreed with this position, and dismissed the case. The ousted officers appealed. They claimed that when the church incorporated under state law it submitted to the state courts’ jurisdiction in all matters of a corporate nature. As a result, the courts could determine if the four officers who ousted them did so in accordance with the church’s bylaws. They insisted that they were raising questions of authority to act, and whether proper corporate procedure were followed in accordance with the bylaws. The other group of officers claimed that the act of ousting the leaders of a religious body has long been an ecclesiastical matter because “the officers of a religious society are to be determined according to the discipline of that society, and civil courts will not review the decision of a competent ecclesiastical body upon a question involving the election of officers.” This group also asserted that it is inconsistent with the American concept of the relationship between church and state to permit civil courts to determine ecclesiastical questions.
A state appeals court concluded that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from resolving the ousted members’ claims. It relied on a landmark case in which the United States Supreme Court addressed an almost identical question-which of two competing factions within one church had the “power to exercise religious authority” over the church building. The Supreme Court held that “judges of the civil courts [are not] as competent in the ecclesiastical law and religious faith of all these bodies as the ablest men in each are in reference to their own.” As such:
where a subject-matter of dispute, 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 its members of the church to the standard of morals required of them … no jurisdiction has been conferred on the tribunal to try the particular case before it. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871).
The court concluded that this dispute was far more than a disagreement over the meaning and application of corporate bylaws. The “ultimate issue” was whether or not the ouster of church officers was proper. The court noted that “there is no way that can be a non-ecclesiastical issue.”
Application. This case illustrates the scope of the universally recognized rule that the civil courts will not interfere with internal church disputes involving “purely ecclesiastical disputes.” The United States Supreme Court has ruled that these disputes include those involving “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of [church] members to the standard of morals required of them.” This case demonstrates that disgruntled officers or members cannot avoid this rule by characterizing a dispute as a matter of corporation law or the interpretation of bylaws. Rolfe v. Parker, 968 S.W.2d 178 (Mo. App. 1998). [Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees, The Establishment Clause]
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