• Key point. Most courts have concluded that they are prohibited by the first amendment from resolving lawsuits addressing a church’s selection of a minister.
• Key point. A minority of courts have been willing to resolve lawsuits addressing a church’s selection of a minister if the church failed to follow its bylaws, and the case can be resolved without any inquiry into religious doctrine.
An Ohio court ruled that it could invalidate a church’s election of a pastor if the election violated the church’s bylaws and if it could resolve the dispute without any inquiry into religious doctrine. A group of church members asked a court to invalidate the church’s election of a new pastor on the ground that the election failed to comply with the church bylaws. A trial court ruled that the church breached its bylaws in the election of its pastor and therefore the election was not a legal action of the church. The church appealed, claiming that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from interfering with a church’s selection of a pastor. A state appeals court upheld the trial court’s ruling. It began its opinion by noting:
the church] is a congregational, as opposed to hierarchical, church, meaning that it is self—governing and does not answer to any higher organizational authority …. It is governed by whatever constitution, rules, and processes it has put in place for itself. However, the fact that [it] is so organized certainly should not grant to them the unbridled right to disregard and to violate the provisions of their own written bylaws or constitutions.
In this case, the propriety of the election which earned [the pastor] his place in the pulpit was largely brought into question as a result of the manner in which the election meeting was called and conducted. It is true that, in general, the appointment of clergy in a religious organization, where no improper methods of choice are proven, is governed by ecclesiastical law and enjoys constitutional protection. However, a civil court does not offend the first amendment by inquiring into whether a meeting, at which such purported congregational action took place, was properly called and properly conducted. Such elections must be made in accordance with the society’s constitution and bylaws. Otherwise, civil courts have the right and the obligation to step in and settle disputes where called upon.
It is well—settled that American courts will steadfastly decline to interfere in church disputes over doctrinal or spiritual matters. However, in [this] case there were no ecclesiastical questions decided or even considered by the lower court. The court did not delve into areas of church dogma or consider the doctrinal beliefs of either faction or [the pastor]. Relying on no religious precepts and based strictly upon a neutral and secular reading of the church’s own constitution, the court found that the election … had not been conducted in conformity with that governing document. For this reason, the court declared the election a nullity ….
Application. This case represents a minority view. Most courts that have addressed the issue have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment from meddling with a church’s selection of a pastor-even if the selection process was in violation of church bylaws. Winston v. Second Baptist Missionary Church, 1997 WL 576374 (Ohio App. 1997). [Negligence as a Basis for Liability]
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