Pastor, Church & Law

Preconditions to Civil Court Review

§ 06.10.03

Key point 6-10.03. The civil courts will not resolve a dispute contesting the discipline of a church member if the member failed to “exhaust” remedies available under the church’s own governing documents.

The courts will not review church membership expulsions unless the expelled members have exhausted all available procedures within their church for obtaining review of their expulsion. To illustrate, one court refused to resolve a lawsuit brought by a dismissed church member challenging his dismissal since he had not pursued all of the remedies provided by his local church and a parent denomination for the review of such actions.324 First Baptist Church v. State of Ohio, 591 F. Supp. 676 (S.D. Ohio 1983); State ex rel. Nelson v. Ellis, 140 So.2d 194 (La. 1962) aff’d, 151 So.2d 544 (La. 1963); Rodyk v. Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church, 296 N.Y.S.2d 496 (1968), aff’d, 328 N.Y.S.2d 685 (1972).

Case Study. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that it could not review a dismissed church member’s claim that his membership had been improperly terminated since the member had failed to exhaust remedies provided to him in the church’s bylaws. The court concluded: “A church member attacking a church decision may not obtain civil court review of that decision without first exhausting the church’s internal appeal procedures. It is undisputed that the church bylaws provide an internal review procedure, which [the member] has not yet exhausted. Thus, he could have no right to an order reinstating his membership pending the church’s review of his expulsion.325 Lott v. Eastern Shore Christian Center, 908 So. 2d 922 (Ala. 2005).

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