• Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from intervening in ecclesiastical disputes, including those involving the retention or dismissal of clergy.
A Texas court ruled that it lacked the authority to intervene in a local church dispute involving the retention of a pastor. A church congregation held a meeting to determine whether the pastor should be retained. While the meeting was convened in violation of the church bylaws, it was with consent of the pastor who attended. During this vote, a physical altercation occurred between factions who supported and opposed the pastor. In the end, the congregation voted to retain him, although many viewed this vote as “tainted” because of the violence that occurred. A second vote occurred a few weeks later on the steps of the church. In that vote, the pastor was removed by a vote of 87 to 1. A group of members filed a lawsuit, asking a court to order the pastor to vacate his office. They also asked the court to order an accounting of all church funds, and to forbid the pastor or his agents from using the church checking account. The court ordered a third election. It outlined the policies and procedures that were to be followed in conducting the vote, based on the church’s bylaws. The court also called for “constables” to gather and count the votes.
Before the third election was held, a state appeals court reviewed the trial court’s decision. The court began its opinion by observing that “it is without dispute that the first amendment prohibits civil courts from intruding into the church’s governance of religious or ecclesiastical matters, such as theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members to standards of morality.” However, the courts do have authority to review matters involving “civil, contract, or property rights” even though they stem from a church controversy. Further, “neutral principles of law must be applied to decide such matters so that courts do not violate the constitutional prohibition against government-established religion. If the conflict cannot be resolved solely by the application of neutral principles of law, we must defer to the decision made by the highest authority of the church from which the question or controversy arises.” The court noted that the difficulty “lies in determining whether a particular dispute is ecclesiastical or simply a civil law controversy in which church officials happen to be involved.” It concluded:
The relationships between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the primary agent by which a church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters concerning this relationship must be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern. As a result, we must conclude that the issue of a pastor’s ouster is ecclesiastical in nature. Courts may not attempt to right wrongs related to the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of clergy. While such wrongs may exist and be severe, and although the administration of the church may be inadequate to provide a remedy, the preservation of the free exercise of religion is deemed so important a principle it overshadows the inequities which may result from its liberal application. Consequently, the trial court was limited to a review of the facts to determine whether it had jurisdiction to proceed. Those facts demonstrate that it did not. Accordingly, the only proper action for the trial court was to dismiss the case. While we are cognizant that dismissal leaves the congregation of the … church without a judicial determination of whether they have properly removed [the pastor], such action is proper because it leaves the decision of who will lead the congregation with the congregation.
Application. This case illustrates the reluctance most courts have to resolving internal church disputes, including those involving the retention of ministers. Of course the down side to such decisions is that they may validate, through inaction, congregational decisions that are arbitrary or in violation of the church bylaws. As a result, some courts have been more willing to engage in limited review of such cases, at least if they can do so without any inquiry into church doctrine or polity. Dean v. Alford, 994 S.W.2d 392 (Tex. App. 1999). [Termination, Church Business Meetings, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
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