Key point 7-17. Churches do not have to tolerate persons who disrupt religious services. Church leaders can ask a court to issue an order barring the disruptive person from the church’s premises. If the person violates the order, he or she may be removed from church premises by the police and may be found to be in contempt of court.
Does a church have the legal authority to remove disruptive individuals from church services?
This issue has been addressed by a number of courts. Generally, the courts have been sympathetic to attempts by churches to deny access to disruptive individuals. To illustrate, a Connecticut court agreed that a church could bar a disruptive individual from entering onto church premises.229 State v. Steinmann, 569 A.2d 557 (Conn. App. 1990).It noted that “there was ample evidence that the defendant entered church property, on the three occasions charged, as a knowing trespasser. The record reveals that the defendant had been unequivocally informed and understood that his privilege to attend church services had been revoked. … The record here is replete with evidence that this defendant knew that he was trespassing upon church property and was unwelcome at services.” With regard to the defendant’s claim that a church is “public property” and that one cannot be convicted of trespassing for attending services, the court observed that “property does not lose its private character merely because the public is generally invited to use it for designated purposes. … The owner or one in lawful possession has the right to determine whom to invite, the scope of the invitation and the circumstances under which the invitation may be revoked.” As to the defendant’s claim that his constitutional rights were violated by his conviction for attending church services, the court observed that there is “no constitutional right to ‘freedom of movement’ or ‘freedom of worship’ on private property where there is no license or privilege to be there.”
- A California court ruled that a disruptive person who engaged in outbursts during church services and harassed members before and after worship services could be legally restrained from the church property. The court concluded that person’s right of free speech “does not trump the church’s right to prohibit her disruptive conduct on its property.” The court observed: “The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it. But, in this case, the church is not an open forum. And if the expression [of speech] is inappropriate for the property or is incompatible with the intended use of the property, then the expression may be totally barred and the property is considered a non-forum. … Here, in the absence of a restraining order, the church and the congregation would continue to suffer from [this person’s] outbursts and disruptive behavior. This is not a dispute over free speech. The church has expelled a member who was harassing the congregation and disrupting religious services. With each passing day, the church risks losing more members. And the church should not have to conduct services or meetings in secret just to avoid the interference of an expelled congregant. Without a restraining order, the church and its members would suffer irreparable harm. If a restraining order is granted, the affect on [the expelled member] would be negligible. She would no longer be able to annoy the congregation, tear down church bulletins, or frighten children. She has said that she will continue her disruptive behavior until a court directs otherwise. That time has come.”230 Church of Christ v. Superior Court, 121 Cal.Rptr.2d 810 (Cal. App. 2002). Accord Church of Christ v. Lady Cage-Barile, 2004 WL 2943265 (unpublished decision, Cal. App. 2004); Christ Lutheran Church v. Stude, 2004 WL 2813584 (unpublished decision, Cal. App. 2004) (a California court ruled that a trial court’s order prohibiting an abusive 84-year-old church member from entering church property was reasonable and valid).
- A Kansas court ruled that a church was not liable for the use of reasonable physical force by an usher in restraining a woman during a church service who was making threats against the pastor.231 First Church v. Nowak, 209 P.3d 764 (Kan. App. 2009).
- A Louisiana court ruled that a church has a legal right to use reasonable force in removing a potentially disruptive individual from its premises. A former pastor attended a business meeting of his former church, even though (1) he was no longer pastor, (2) he was not a member, (3) he had no legal right to be present, and (4) had been notified not to attend. He was asked to leave the church, but refused to do so. In response, a few members took him by each arm and physically removed him from the church. The former pastor later sued the members who removed him claiming that they had committed battery. A state appeals court disagreed. The court defined a battery as “harmful or offensive contact to another without that person’s consent, done with an intent” to cause the contact. The court concluded that the church members did not intend any offensive or harmful contact with the former pastor when they removed him from the building. It added: “They had a legal right to see that [he] left the church meeting so its business would not be impeded and disrupted by his presence. Their contact with him was a reasonable means of accomplishing that intention. When, with no intent to cause offensive or harmful contact, reasonable force is used by persons in authority against one who has provoked an incident, the resulting contact is not a battery.”232 Robinson v. Dunn, 683 So.2d 894 (La. App. 1996).