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Church Autonomy and Disputes

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When and to what extent may secular courts decide religious disputes? The U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to hear two cases seeking clarification about the extent of “church autonomy” legal protection for religious organizations. U.S. courts and religious leaders have grappled with this issue since at least the Civil War, with the continued evolution of the church autonomy doctrine – sometimes referred to as “ecclesiastical abstention.” Parallel concepts include the “neutral principles” doctrine, under which courts may wade into certain disputes involving religious organizations, and “ministerial exception,” which is used in employment cases as a complete bar to litigation involving discrimination and other ministry worker claims.

Which legal principle applies when? Much depends on the specific facts, especially the subject matter of the dispute. Over time, the U.S. Supreme Court has established a legal roadmap to frame such legal issues for potential litigation, with lower federal and state laws filling out many nuances. However, the lower courts have not always agreed, with resulting grey areas for religious leaders, factional groups, and their attorneys.

Religious denominational splits, disagreements between organizations and ministers over a variety of social issues, internal disputes, and other conflicts often result in one or both sides seeking vindication from the court. The ability of a court to intervene to settle these matters remains very relevant as organizations and leaders seek to either (a) protect their religious autonomy from government involvement or (b) protect important interests involving property rights, control of religious leadership, and contract-related rights. Put differently, sometimes religious nonprofits want government involvement – namely through the court system as arbiters of justice – and sometimes they do not. A tension certainly exists between these competing interests, with which courts will surely continue to struggle – especially given current trends.

The following sections address the historical development of church autonomy within specific religious disputes, recently decided cases, and specific applications for religious organizations involved with internal conflicts (now or in the future).

Recognition of Church Autonomy, Within Legal Framework

The church autonomy doctrine is rooted in the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which in turn are based on religious freedom principles predating our country’s founding. The church autonomy doctrine recognizes among other things the right of religious organizations to govern themselves. Courts generally decline to decide issues involving church doctrine, church structure or polity, membership qualifications and discipline, and ministerial employment.[1]

The U.S. judicial system first recognized the church autonomy doctrine shortly after the Civil War, in Watson v. Jones.[2] In 1866, a church in Kentucky split over the issue of slavery. One faction believed slavery to be prohibited by Scripture, while the other believed slavery to be authorized by Scripture. The core dispute was over church doctrine. After the denomination decided which faction’s theological interpretation was correct, with resulting implications for the church’s property, the losing faction sued. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that matters of church discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law are not appropriate for a civil court to decide.[3] The Watson Court then deferred to the ecclesiastical authorities involved in that dispute, refusing to adjudicate the church property dispute (albeit via a very lengthy court decision).

In the mid-1900s, the New York legislature passed a law that effectively split Russian Orthodox churches in America from the denominational leadership in Moscow and gave the church property to the new American entity. This legal change effectively altered the church structure and polity. In response, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 1952 decision striking down this law and upheld religious organizations’ power “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”[4] In doing so, the Court recognized church autonomy doctrine as rooted squarely within the First Amendment’s freedom of religion solidifying its constitutional precedence.

Shortly thereafter, the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church removed one of its bishops and reorganized the diocese in North America into three separate dioceses. The former bishop sued claiming the church failed to follow the proper procedure in taking these actions. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the church’s decision regarding the employment of its minister and the structure of the church was “ecclesiastical in its character" and not for the courts to decide, again exercising judicial restraint in an internal religious dispute.[5]

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court built on this precedent and a series of lower court rulings within the employment context, formally adopting the “ministerial exception.” In the landmark Hosanna-Tabor decision, the Court held that ministers could not bring discrimination claims against their employers because the state should not require a religious body to retain an unwanted minister. Courts can therefore not decide issues involving the selection of a minister, regardless of underlying legal issues. Hosanna-Tabor involved claims of unlawful disability-based employment discrimination by a “called” teacher in a Lutheran church-run school, and this legal bar to litigation has since been expanded further.[6]

Notably, while church autonomy applies to all religions regardless of structure, courts in these types of religious disputes tend to defer to the decision of the highest authority of these hierarchical churches as effectively final. Consequently, churches and other religious organizations should expect that issues of church doctrine, polity, membership qualifications and discipline, and ministerial employment are all barred by the church autonomy doctrine. What about other types of internal disputes involving religious organization, such as certain property ownership rights and compliance with applicable nonprofit governance laws?

Enter “Neutral Principles": Court-Recognized Limitations on Church Autonomy

The church autonomy doctrine has limits; it is not an absolute bar to litigation. In 1968, the Supreme Court first hinted that church autonomy may not be absolute.[7] Then in the 1979 landmark ruling of Jones v. Wolf, the Supreme Court adopted a corollary “neutral principles of law” doctrine allowing judicial resolution of certain religious disputes involving solely property issues:

The primary advantages of the neutral-principles approach are that it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organizations and polity. The method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges. It thereby promises to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.”[8]

Under the neutral principles of law doctrine, courts thus may review a church’s governing documents such as its articles of incorporation, constitution, and bylaws to determine ownership of property. Notwithstanding this apparent flexibility, courts are to be cautious in avoiding determining ultimate property ownership issues by deciding underlying religious question. And courts can get this process wrong!

Here’s one property-related example involving bylaws, which the court ruled failed to fit within neutral principles. An Illinois church’s bylaws provided for the church property to be transferred to the denomination if that church “cease[d] to function” as a church in that denomination. How can such language be properly determined, and by whom? In that decision, the appellate court concluded that this provision was ambiguous and required a religious interpretation, one that could therefore not be judicially determined because of the church autonomy doctrine.[9] The court thus refused to rule on what it determined was a religious question, even though the dispute involved what appeared to be non-religious – i.e., real estate.

As this case illustrates, property disputes can get entangled with religious issues, such as if the question arises of whether a local religious body holds authority to convey property instead of its supervising district or denominational leadership. Likewise, if a local religious body’s articles of incorporation or bylaws provide for an automatic transfer of property upon dissolution or disaffiliation of a church, it can be challenging to interpret such provisions – and religious leaders should not expect courts to come to the rescue (on either side). Indeed, such conflicts may give rise to questions of whether the language at issue is interpreted according to the denominational leadership’s disaffiliation decision, according to the local religious body’s own autonomy, or something else. In sum, the case may seem to involve only neutral bylaw evaluation, but such issues may implicate underlying religious dynamics left alone by a judge.

More Religious Conflicts – Recent Cases and Remaining Concerns

So long as religious organizations exist, there will likely be religious disputes – and perhaps continued evolution of these church autonomy principles. Two recent court appeals illustrate the continued efforts for judicial resolution of religious disputes. Both cases involved requested clarification from the U.S. Supreme Court, with resulting denial of certiorari for both.[10]

The questions presented to the Court included: (1) whether the church autonomy doctrine protected churches from even having to litigate claims involving church discipline, religious doctrine, and ministerial employment or if it only acted as a defense to be argued in the case; (2) whether a church may immediately appeal the denial of a church autonomy argument or if it had to wait until the conclusion of the case; (3) whether “neutral principles” only applied to church property disputes or could apply to other claims such as defamation; and (4) whether the status of an employee as a minister is a question for the judge or for the jury. Declining to hear these cases, the Supreme Court has thus left these questions open for further development in the lower courts (consistent with our country’s legal tradition of case-made law).

These questions are of utmost importance to religious leaders, especially related to timing, costs, and specific types of claims (e.g., defamation, bylaw interpretation, adverse actions involving church discipline). Currently, religious organizations must go through litigation bearing the related costs and burdens. If their church autonomy argument is denied early in the process, they must finish litigating the case before they can appeal. Such burden and expense may deter religious organizations from engaging in litigation to protect their rights guaranteed under the church autonomy doctrine.

Additionally, it is still unclear to what extent certain types of claims can be decided on neutral principles. In Belya v. Kapral, the defrocked priest did not bring any employment claims which would be barred by the ministerial exception. Instead, he brought a defamation claim against his superiors claiming he was defamed during the investigation and discipline. The appellate court held that the case may be able to be decided on neutral principles.[11] However, other courts have refused to extend neutral principles beyond property disputes as the Supreme Court has not addressed the issue outside of the property context.[12]

It is similarly unclear whether courts can determine whether a church has correctly followed its bylaw procedure. Appellate courts in Illinois have come to opposite conclusions on this issue. One court concluded that it is a permissible issue for courts to decide.[13] The other court determined that allowing intervention on this issue invites an impermissible inquiry into church polity, and thus it refused involvement.[14]

Religious organizations may also potentially take an issue that would otherwise be protected by the church autonomy doctrine, and through their own actions, and make it a “neutral” matter that courts can decide. A church in Illinois did just that when disciplining one of its members and pastors. After concluding the discipline, the church sent letters to other churches not involved in the minister’s misconduct. These letters stated that the pastor could no longer act as a minister or accept any title that implied his fitness for spiritual leadership and ministry. The court found that the church autonomy doctrine did not apply to the pastors’ invasion of privacy and false light claims. Because the church had gone outside of its disciplinary process in sending the letters, the matter was no longer one of internal church discipline.[15]

Key Risk Management Takeaways

The church autonomy doctrine can be a double-edged sword for religious leaders. At times, they may want the court to get involved, and at other times, they may want the court to stay away. How can religious leaders best proactively address such tensions, particularly (a) to affirmatively seek to stay out of court, and (b) to resolve conflicts, as may inevitably arise, through other decision-making processes that are fully responsive to their needs? Here are some key pointers.

Clear Corporate Governance

First, religious leaders should review their organizations’ bylaws and other governing documents to ensure that they are clear and accurate. The organization’s structure as memorialized in the bylaws should match the organization’s structure in actual practice. The bylaws should be both internally consistent and compliant with other laws to avoid confusing or conflicting requirements. Bylaws should also reflect best practices for optimal nonprofit governance.[16]

Dispute Resolution

Since courts may not decide certain disputes in religious organizations, the bylaws or policies should also provide for dispute resolution procedures such as through the denomination, mediation, or other similar avenues. Many dispute resolution organizations are aimed precisely at helping religious organizations with such matters, such as the Ambassadors of Reconciliation’s Institute for Christian Conciliation.[17] Many hierarchical religious organizations also have their own processes for handling myriad conflicts, which may be helpful and otherwise mandatory (per the above court cases).

Know Where (and to Whom) the Property Goes

The corporate dissolution provisions in articles of incorporation and bylaws should clearly describe where an organization’s property and assets will go upon dissolution. Sometimes organizations’ dissolution language is outdated too – such as for a church that leaves a denomination. Such language should be current and accurate. Note too that the word “dissolution” is technical – i.e., when a corporate “person” ceases to exist as a nonprofit corporation. Consequently, further consideration may be warranted for what happens when a religious body has disbanded or otherwise has effectively ceased to function. Then what? A court should not be deciding property issues within such context, and it likely will not. Consequently, the above guidance about clear governance provisions and alternative dispute resolution becomes especially important in matters of dissolution and similar cessation of operations, as may affect property rights.

Membership Conflict

For optimal risk management related to potential membership conflicts, religious organizations should also clearly define the rights and responsibilities of members. Such clarity typically should be contained in bylaws, membership applications, and membership agreements. For example, each member should affirmatively submit to the organization’s discipline, consistent with each organization’s tradition or other guiding principles. Such disciplinary processes should be clearly defined, for the benefit of all. Further, leadership should strictly follow the procedure when disciplining members to avoid further liability not covered by the church autonomy doctrine. This area may be particularly important to defend against potential defamation and invasion of privacy claims brought by members, with the responsive argument that the members agreed in advance to be disciplined.

Clergy Issues

Finally, religious organizations should clearly define who their ministers or other clergypersons are, as opposed to other organizational staff. The ministerial exception provides tremendous legal protection for employment decisions related to ministers – effectively a door slam against claims. However, if a religious organization has not defined which employees are clergy (consistent with its ecclesiology and other religious principles) and taken appropriate taken steps to document this status, the organization may be subject to court adjudication of employee discrimination and other claims.

Legal Clarity? Some But Not Necessarily So

The intricate relationship between courts and religious organizations continues to present nuanced legal issues amidst an evolving legal landscape. The church autonomy doctrine and its related concepts offer guidelines for determining the extent of court involvement in religious matters, but not necessarily assurance. Given such considerations, religious leaders should proactively address corporate governance, potential membership conflict, and clergy designations - along with other areas that could lead to unwanted and divisive conflict – staying equipped with the understanding that internal disputes may well fall outside the bounds of judicial resolution.

[1] For an extended and excellent treatment of church autonomy, including its varied iterations and historical background, see C. Esbeck, An Extended Essay on Church Autonomy and the First Amendment, 22 Federalist Society Review 244 (2021), available here. As Professor Esbeck observes, “Church autonomy doctrine has long entailed the rule that the judiciary must avoid issues that cause it to probe into the religious meaning of religious words, practices, or events, and that it must avoid making determinations concerning the centrality of a religious belief or practice to that religion.”
[2] See also Methodist Church v. Remington, 1 Watts 218, 1832 Pa. LEXIS 115 (1832) (refusing to adjudicate a claim brought by an incorporated Methodist congregation seeking assets held by an unincorporated group of Methodists, based solely on the groups’ common Methodist beliefs, as an illegitimate and unconstitutional attempt to “establish” a church).
[3] Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 727 (1871). The court added “internal organization” to this list in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).
[4] Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S 94, 116 (1952).
[5] Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).
[6] Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & Sch. v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). See also our law firm's blog articles here and here.
[7] Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1968).
[8] Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 603 (1979).
[9] Clay v. Illinois Dist. Council of the Assemblies of God Church, 275 Ill. App. 3d 971, 978 (4th Dist. 1995).
[10] Tucker v. Faith Bible Chapel Int’l., 26 F.4th 1021 (10th Cir. 2022) cert. denied 599 U.S. ___ (2023); Belya v. Kapral, 45 F.4th 621 (2nd Cir. 2022) cert. denied 599 U.S. ___ (2023).
[11] Belya v. Kapral, 45 F.4th 621 (2nd Cir. 2022)
[12] See, e.g., Bruss v. Przybylo, 385 Ill. App. 3d 399 (2nd Dist. 2008).
[13] See Jackson v. Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church Deacon Board, 2016 Ill. App. 143-45 (1st Dist. 2016); Ervin v. Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, 351 Ill. App. 3d 41 (1st Dist. 2004).
[14] Bruss v. Przybylo, 385 Ill. App. 3d 399 (2nd Dist. 2008).
[15] Duncan v. Peterson, 359 Ill. App. 3d 1034 (2nd Dist. 2005).
[16] For more detail on developing effective nonprofit bylaws, see our law firm's blog article here.
[17] Learn more about Ambassadors of Reconciliation's Institute for Christian Conciliation on their website here.

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