Church and State/Church in Court: Recent Application and Limits

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When a lawsuit happens within a worshiping body, may a civil court get involved?  Despite congregational members’ best efforts to get along, sometimes it just doesn’t happen.  Push comes to shove, and there’s a lawsuit. Then what?  And what about the separation of church and state?

Thomas Jefferson’s famous “separation” only goes so far.       

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson said that the American people in the religion clauses of the First Amendment built a “wall of separation between church and state.” Jefferson’s famous wall, however, has never been impermeable.  While courts will usually run from theological debates, they will generally hear disputes concerning religious groups’ governance under the “neutral principles” legal doctrine.  This sometimes comes as a shock to worshipping bodies. 

The Authority of Scripture v. The Authority of the Court

            A recent Missouri case illustrates the problem.  See Spirit & Truth Church v. Barnaby, ED100421, 2014 WL 1686933 (Mo. Ct. App. Apr. 29, 2014).  In this case, the church board was comprised of three members:  the pastor, the pastor’s wife, and one more.  The pastor and his wife commenced divorce proceedings.  In the midst of those proceedings, the pastor removed his wife and the other board member from membership, thus disqualifying them from their positions on the board.  The pastor then appointed two replacement directors.  The pastor’s wife and other former director sued the pastor and the new board.  The trial court held against the pastor and that the ousted members retained their status as Church members and directors.

            Plaintiffs argument:  Court -- stay out of our theology!

            On appeal, the plaintiffs objected on theological grounds to the appellate court’s right to determine the validity of pastor’s actions. “[Plaintiffs] cite a long-standing Judeo–Christian tradition, based on scripture, of giving one church elder the authority to appoint other church leaders and to excommunicate members,” and claiming that determine the matter would “fly in the face of thousands of years of church history.”  In other words, according to the plaintiffs, the judge had no business interfering with questions containing these strong theological and church history issues.

            The Court:  This isn’t about your theology.

The appellate court disagreed.  As the court viewed the controversy, the issue was not theological but rather a matter to be addressed under the state’s nonprofit corporate law.  As the court ruled, “Because the Church was incorporated under Missouri nonprofit law, it has submitted to the state courts all matters of a corporate nature…  Thus, the case is civil in nature, and does not require the trial court or this Court to “delve into matters of religious doctrine, ritual, or practice.” 

Under Missouri nonprofit law, the church’s corporate bylaws controlled questions of governance.  The court thus examined the pastor’s actions under the bylaws – not the church’s theology.  Under this approach, the court held that the bylaws gave the pastor legal authority to do exactly what he did – remove members (albeit scandalously).   The appellate court therefore reversed the lower court, and the pastor won.

Application

            Courts can, and do, often get involved in the governance of worshipping bodies under such a “neutral principles” approach.  In contrast, the “ecclesiastical abstention” doctrine precludes courts from getting involved in overtly religious doctrine questions. For example, whether a pastor may be terminated under an employment contract for preaching poorly would be a purely religious matter excluded by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.  Likewise, whether women may serve as church leaders, as a theological matter, would be excluded from judicial review.  Church membership qualification issues, such as needed for church votes, are also typically off-limits because of theologically-related issues involved.  (E.g., did they tithe “enough”?  Are their beliefs in accordance with that of the religious institution?)

            A huge potential for church controversy arises when a religious institution’s governing rules (typically, its bylaws) become outdated and are not followed in practice.  A dispute may then arise regarding a pastor, board control, or membership voting rights.  What are the applicable rules – what is on paper, or what is actually done in practice?  This question may contain both theological and governance-related aspects.. 

            Because of such crossover, religious bodies must take diligence and care to continually ensure that their governing documents are consistent with their theology.  Governing documents should be theologically integrated with the group’s beliefs.  Religious leaders, in consultation with seasoned legal counsel, should carefully develop Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Organization Policies to ensure that the governance of the church reflects and is grounded in the rich theological, philosophical, and historical beliefs, traditions and practices of the church.  Failure to do to may lead to situations in which a civil court is stepping on theological toes.

In addition, worshipping groups should understand their governing documents, and operate consistently with them.  If such documents have been drafted poorly, or do not reflect the group’s current customs and practices, the group may find itself subject to the intervention by outsiders – judges who often will not understand the culture and theology of the group.  Before that happens, worshipping groups with inconsistent or incomplete bylaws and articles of incorporation should take steps to repair the problems.  The documents may be formally amended to accurately state the ways in which the organization intends to operate.  Attention to such details can help keep courts from forcing a religious group from situations the group finds theologically objectionable.