• Key point. The civil courts are without authority to review internal church decisions to discipline or dismiss a member.
• Key point. Some courts are willing to engage in “marginal review” of church membership decisions for the limited purpose of deciding if the proper body made the decision.
• Key point. Statements made in the context of a church membership meeting addressing the discipline of a member ordinarily cannot be defamatory.
An Ohio court ruled that it had no authority to review a church’s decision to dismiss a member. The court also ruled that it could not review the dismissed member’s defamation claim, and that a state nonprofit corporation law did not provide the dismissed member with any basis for suing the church. Here are the facts of this case: A church member sought access to his church’s financial records. When church leaders denied this request, the member filed a lawsuit in which he asked a court to order the church to turn over the records. Following the filing of this lawsuit, church leaders attempted to dismiss the member from church membership. The member filed another lawsuit against his church, claiming that the attempt to dismiss him was in violation of the church’s bylaws; caused severe emotional distress; was defamatory. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that it was an ecclesiastical dispute over which it had no jurisdiction. The ousted member appealed.
Civil court review of membership disputes
A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. It observed:
Even congregational (as opposed to hierarchical) churches are free from secular court scrutiny of their internal practices and discipline regarding the membership of the congregation. Courts do, however, retain jurisdiction in cases involving congregational churches to determine whether the proper authority made the decision about church discipline or policy.
The court insisted that the power to determine whether or not the “proper authority” made a decision regarding church discipline does not mean that the civil courts can “determine whether a church has followed its own bylaws or constitution. So long as the appropriate church authority has made the decision, the issue of whether the church followed its internal procedures is a matter of church governance and discipline into which a secular court is prohibited from inquiring.” The court quoted from a landmark Supreme Court decision:
All who unite themselves to such a body [the general church] do so with an implied consent to [its] government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts to have them reversed. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871).
The court continued:
Church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them is beyond the scope of review by a secular tribunal. In other words, secular courts will not inquire into whether disfellowship or expulsion from church membership was in accordance with church bylaws or regulations.
The ousted member acknowledged that the “special relationship” between a church and its pastor “militates against secular court intervention,” but insisted that no such problem exists when a church member brings a complaint to the courts. The court disagreed:
While we agree that matters regarding “who should preach from the pulpit” are fundamentally and unquestionably beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts, the cases demonstrate that all matters of the propriety of internal church discipline (except, in the case of a congregational church, whether the proper authority determined the discipline), whether taken against a clergyman or a church member, are beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts.
The court also rejected the ousted member’s claim that the civil courts could resolve his defamation against the church and its trustees. The ousted member asserted that the church trustees had defamed him by stating that he had lied, that he was “in league with Satan,” that he had been “overtaken by a fall,” that he was a “defiler of the temple” and an enemy of the church, and that he was “sleeping around,” and that a court could resolve the defamation issue without any interpretation of religious doctrine or beliefs. The court disagreed:
In this case, all of the statements alleged by appellant to be defamatory arose out of the underlying dispute between him and the church regarding the propriety of his conduct in suing the church to obtain its records and the church’s subsequent decision to remove [him] from church membership. [His lawsuit] makes clear that the dispute between the parties regarding [his] lawsuit against the church was based on biblical interpretation. The move to disfellowship [him] therefore arose from a dispute regarding his “conformity … to the standard of morals required of” him by his church. The allegedly defamatory statements made by church members, trustees or agents in terminating [his] membership in the church are therefore inextricably intertwined with ecclesiastical or religious issues over which secular courts have no jurisdiction.
nonprofit corporation law
The ousted member pointed out that the church is a nonprofit corporation organized under Ohio law, and is therefore governed by the nonprofit corporation statute. Among other things, this includes a requirement to comply with the corporate bylaws. The ousted member insisted that as a member of the church he had a right to sue to require the church to follow its bylaws. Once again, the court disagreed, noting that “membership in the church is not the same as membership … in the corporation,” and that a member’s rights in the corporation are no greater than the corporation’s bylaws provide. It further noted that the church’s bylaws contained no provision giving members the right to sue the church for noncompliance with its bylaws.
Application. There are a number of aspects to this decision that will be instructive to church leaders, including the following: (1) The court emphasized that the civil courts have no authority to resolve internal church decisions regarding members. However, it noted that the courts can determine whether or not the “proper authority” made such a decision. In other words, if the church bylaws give the entire church membership the authority to dismiss a member, then the civil courts can review a dismissed member’s claim that he was improperly dismissed by the church board. Note, however, that not all courts have come to this same conclusion. In fact, a majority of courts have rejected even this limited basis for civil court review of church membership decisions. (2) The court concluded that it had no authority to decide whether or not the church followed its bylaws in dismissing the member. This conclusion is in accord with the vast majority of other courts. (3) The court refused to review the ousted member’s defamation claim, since the allegedly defamatory remarks all occurred in the context of a church meeting that was called to determine whether or not the members should be dismissed. (4) Remember that the member was dismissed because he sued his church. Many church leaders have wondered if they can dismiss a member who sues the church. This case suggests that this may be a permissible basis for dismissal. Of course, before dismissing a member on such a basis, church leaders should carefully review their bylaws and consult with legal counsel. (5) The ousted member pointed out that the church is a nonprofit corporation organized under Ohio law, and is therefore governed by the nonprofit corporation statute. Among other things, this includes a requirement to comply with the corporate bylaws. The ousted member insisted that as a member of the church he had a right to sue to require the church to follow its bylaws. Once again, the court disagreed, noting that “membership in the church is not the same as membership … in the corporation,” and that a member’s rights in the corporation are no greater than the corporation’s bylaws provide. It further noted that the church’s bylaws contained no provision giving members the right to sue the church for noncompliance with its bylaws. (6) The court rejected the idea that nonprofit corporation law gives church members any special right to sue their church for noncompliance with the church’s bylaws. Howard v. Covenant Apostolic Church, Inc., 1997 WL 602906 (Ohio App. 1997). [Defamati on, Church Members]
© Copyright 1998 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m19 m86 c0398