Key point 6-09.01. The procedure for selecting members generally is defined by a church’s governing documents. The civil courts have refrained from resolving disputes over the selection of members on the ground that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding whether or not individuals satisfy the requirements for church membership.
The essence of the relationship between members and a church consists of an agreement, a profession of faith, adherence to church doctrine, and submission to church governance.225 Freshour v. King, 345 P.2d 689 (Kan. 1959); Henson v. Payne, 302 S.W.2d 44 (Mo. 1956); Second Baptist Church v. Mount Zion Baptist Church, 466 P.2d 212 (Nev. 1970); Western Conference of Original Free Will Baptists v. Creech, 123 S.E.2d 619 (N.C. 1962).The membership of a church is typically determined by reference to the church’s governing documents and to any applicable state corporation law. It is well-settled that (1) the right to determine the qualifications for membership belongs to the church, (2) a determination as to who are “members in good standing” is an ecclesiastical question relating to the government and discipline of a church, and (3) a church’s decision about either matter is binding on the courts.226 Rodyk v. Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church, 296 N.Y.S.2d 496 (1968), aff’d, 328 N.Y.S.2d 685 (1972). See also Stewart v. Jarriel, 59 S.E.2d 368 (Ga. 1950); Fast v. Smyth, 527 S.W.2d 673, 676 (Mo. 1975) (“the determination of who are qualified members of a church is an ecclesiastical matter”); Eisenberg v. Fauer, 200 N.Y.S.2d 749 (1960); Presbytery of Beaver-Butler v. Middlesex, 489 A.2d 1317 (Pa. 1985) (“the view of a court as to who are heretics among warring sects is worth nothing, and must count as nothing if our cherished diversity of religious views is to prevail”).
The United States Supreme Court has stated the general rule of judicial nonintervention in the ecclesiastical affairs of churches, including membership determinations, as follows:
But it is a very different thing where a subject matter of dispute, strictly and purely ecclesiastical in its character—a matter over which the civil courts exercise no jurisdiction—a matter which concerns theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them—becomes the subject of its action. It may be said here, also, that no jurisdiction has been conferred on the tribunal to try the particular case before it, or that, in its judgment, it exceeds the powers conferred upon it, or that the laws of the church do not authorize the particular form of proceeding adopted; and, in a sense often used in the courts, all of those may be said to be questions of jurisdiction. But it is easy to see that if the civil courts are to inquire into all these matters, the whole subject of the doctrinal theology, the usages and customs, the written laws, and fundamental organization of every religious denomination may, and must, be examined into with minuteness and care, for they would become, in almost every case, the criteria by which the validity of the ecclesiastical decree would be determined in the civil court.227 Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 733-34 (1871) (emphasis added).
The Supreme Court has also held that religious freedom encompasses the “power of [religious bodies] to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”228 Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).And, the Court has stated that “religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry.”229 Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 713 (1976).This rule is often followed even when it is alleged that a church deviated from its own charter or bylaws in making a membership determination.230 Evans v. Shiloh Baptist Church, 77 A.2d 160 (Md. 1950); Jenkins v. New Shiloh Baptist Church, 56 A.2d 788 (Md. 1948).
A number of courts, however, have been willing to review church determinations involving members as long as no “strictly and purely ecclesiastical” question is presented. For example, some courts have been willing to intervene if:
1) the church determination was the product of fraud or collusion;231 Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 (1929). The United States Supreme Court has stated that “arbitrariness” is no longer a basis for civil court review of the ecclesiastical determinations of churches. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).
2) civil, contract, or property rights of members are affected;232 See, e.g., Carden v. La Grone, 169 S.E.2d 168, 172 (Ga. 1969) (“a court of equity will not interfere with the internal management of a religious society where property rights are not involved”); Third Missionary Baptist Church v. Garrett, 158 N.W.2d 771, 776 (Iowa 1968) (“[i]t is a general rule recognized here and in foreign jurisdictions that ordinarily the courts have no jurisdiction over, and no concern with, purely ecclesiastical questions and controversies, including membership in a church organization, but they do have jurisdiction as to civil, contract, and property rights which are involved in or arise from a church controversy”); Mitchell v. Albanian Orthodox Diocese, 244 N.E.2d 276, 278-79 (Mass. 1969) (“courts do not interfere in a controversy that is exclusively or primarily of an ecclesiastical nature. Where civil or property rights or the construction of legal instruments are involved, however, the courts have been less reluctant to interfere”); Fast v. Smyth, 527 S.W.2d 673, 676 (Mo. 1975) (“the determination of who are qualified members of a church is an ecclesiastical matter. There is, however, a well recognized exception to this general rule in this state. Civil courts will review ecclesiastical matters where necessary to protect the property, contracts, or civil rights of members”).or
3) a legitimate dispute occurs over the meaning of the criteria for membership.233 See, e.g., Smith v. Riley, 424 So.2d 1166 (La. App. 1982) (in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the term members as used in a church charter includes females); Second Baptist Church v. Mount Zion Baptist Church, 466 P.2d 212 (Nev. 1970) (where church bylaws stipulated that failure to attend church or make financial contributions “without a reasonable excuse” resulted in termination of membership, the court resolved church dispute concerning the meaning of “without a reasonable excuse”); Honey Creek Regular Baptist Church v. Wilson, 92 N.E.2d 419 (Ohio 1950) (court agreed to hear church dispute concerning the issue of whether “extending the right hand of fellowship” was a requirement of church membership).
- A Michigan court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving an internal church dispute since it could not do so without delving into church doctrine. The court concluded: “Although a court may determine rights to church property where such can be determined by application of civil law, resolution of the property dispute in this case would require consideration of religious doctrine and ecclesiastical polity. … Accordingly, the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over either parties’ property claim and it properly dismissed the case.” 234 Church of Christ v. Gill, 2002 WL 737801 (Mich. App. 2002).
- A Pennsylvania court refused to order church officials to explain why they refused to admit a person as a member. The court ruled that the civil courts are bound by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom to accept the decisions of religious organizations on matters of “discipline, faith, internal organization, and ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law.” The court concluded that this case, which involved an individual’s right to membership in a church, was the kind of ecclesiastical matter that was beyond the authority of the civil courts to resolve. It observed: “Membership in a congregation is purely an ecclesiastical matter subject to the church rules and controlled by the decisions of the appropriate church tribunals in so far as they do not contravene the civil law. The heart of [the member’s] case is that he desires to become a member in [another church]. Accordingly, it is clear that this case involves a purely ecclesiastical matter.” 235 Gundlach v. Laister, 625 A.2d 706 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993).