• Key point. The first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving lawsuits by dismissed church members challenging the validity of their dismissals.
An Ohio court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a dispute between a dismissed church member and his former church. A church convened a business meeting at which a disgruntled member was dismissed from membership in the church. The dismissed member previously had sued his church for refusing to comply with his request to inspect the church’s financial records. At the business meeting, the dismissed member claimed that several defamatory statements were made about him, including that he was a liar, 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 had committed adultery. The dismissed member was not allowed to be present at this meeting. He later sued the church on three grounds-the church violated its bylaws in dismissing him; defamation; and a violation of state nonprofit corporation law. The court rejected all three grounds, and dismissed the case. Its reasoning is summarized below.
Noncompliance with Bylaws
The court concluded that it lacked the authority to resolve the dismissed member’s claim that the church violated its bylaws in dismissing him. 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 …. 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 with approval from a landmark Supreme Court decision: “All who unite themselves to [a 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 Ohio court continued:
Church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a 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. For the foregoing reasons, we reject [the dismissed member’s] argument that the trial court had jurisdiction to determine whether his expulsion from membership was undertaken in accordance with the church’s bylaws and procedures.
The court emphasized that “all matters of the propriety of internal church discipline (except, in the case of a congregational church, whether the proper authority determined that discipline), whether taken against a clergyman or a church member, are beyond the jurisdiction of secular courts.”
The court noted that all of the allegedly defamatory statements made about the dismissed member had been made during the church business meeting that was convened to address his membership status. In other words, all of the statements were made “to or by those involved in initiating the disfellowship proceedings, and concerned the [dismissed member’s] morality” and fitness for membership. As such, the statements were “inextricably intertwined with ecclesiastical or religious issues over which secular courts have no jurisdiction.”
Nonprofit Corporation Law
The dismissed member argued that he had a legal right to sue to compel the church to follow its bylaws. Once again, the court disagreed: “[M]embership in the church is not the same as membership or trusteeship in the corporation, and [the dismissed member’s] rights in the corporation are no greater than the corporation’s bylaws provide.” The court noted that the dismissed member no longer had “standing” to enforce the church’s bylaws, since he was no longer a member. And, he could not bring a “derivative lawsuit” under state nonprofit corporation law since he “does not meet any of the requirements for a derivative cause of action.”
Application. This case illustrates the nearly universal rule that the civil courts will not determine whether or not a church acted in conformity with its bylaws in dismissing a member. This court did recognize a limited exception-the civil courts may determine whether the “proper authority” dismissed a church member. Few other courts have adopted this exception. The case also illustrates the difficulty that church members face in suing their church or other members or officers for allegedly defamatory statements made in the course of disciplinary proceedings. Finally, the court rejected state nonprofit corporation law as a “backdoor” way for disgruntled members to sue their church. Howard v. Covenant Apostolic Church, Inc., 705 N.E.2d 305 (Ohio App. 1998). [Corporations, Church Members]
© Copyright 1999 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 m47 m16 c0499