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CHURCH DISPUTES AND THE
Autonomy and Separation of Church
within a Christian or other church
(intra-church dispute or conflict), does government court have a legal
Answer: Generally, government
courts may not interfere
with intra-church disputes relating to religious doctrine, discipline,
or internal organization. Serbian
Orthodox Diocese v.
Milivojevich, 426 U.S.
696, 724-25 (1976); Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S.
(1872). Serbian Orthodox Diocese v.Milivojevich, 426 U.S.
at 710; Maryland
Churches v. SharpsburgChurch,
367, 368 (1970); Presbyterian Church I v. Hull Church,
393 U.S. 440 (1969)
would foster excessive
government "entanglement" with religion and, thus, violate the First
Amendment’s establishment clause and/or free exercise clause. Diocese
The First Amendment to
the United States
Constitution states that: "Congress
shall make no law
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"
to Hands-Off Rule: The
may adjudicate a church-related dispute when the dispute can be
principles of law” without inquiry into religious
doctrine. Church property disputes
commonly fall under this category.
permits courts to inquire into matters involving churches and religious
when crimes or torts
have occurred. Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595,
non-contractual civil wrong such
as, for example, assault, battery, defamation, negligence (auto
bite, dangerous property conditions, etc.), professional malpractice,
Because religious organizations
are part of the civil community, they are subject to societal rules
governing property rights,
torts, and criminal conduct. The
First Amendment does not excuse individuals or
religious groups from
complying with valid neutral laws. Employment
Div., Dep't of Human Res.
Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 878-79 (1990).
various “methods” or approaches
to resolve church property disputes as long as the method a does not
the First Amendment. Episcopal Church Cases,
45 Cal.4th 467 (2009).
between two tests for resolving
church property disputes:
Authority” Approach. This
method requires civil courts to accept
as binding decisions made by the highest church self-governing
decided the matter (also known as the "highest church judicatory",
“principle of government” or "compulsory deference" approach; See
Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 – seminal case on church
requires civil courts to apply
the same general neutral legal principles to church property disputes
apply to other secular property disputes.
Which of these
approaches should a court use?
Supreme Court stated that:
property dispute involves a
doctrinal dispute, the court must defer to the position of the highest
ecclesiastical authority that has decided the doctrinal point.
to the extent
can resolve the property
dispute without reference to church doctrine, it should use what the
States Supreme Court has called the ‘neutral principles of
(2009) 45 Cal.4th 467
of information should the
court use to decide the church property issue?
sources such as the deeds to
the property in dispute, the local church's articles of incorporation,
general church's constitution [bylaws], canons, and rules, and relevant
[government] statutes, including statutes specifically concerning
property, such as Corporations Code section 9142.” Episcopal
(2009) 45 Cal.4th 467
Numerous states have concluded that properly worded express trust
preclude a dissident majority of a local congregation from retaining
parish property for their own use after a vote to disaffiliate from a
denomination. See, e.g., Dixon v. Edwards,
290 F.3d 699, 716 (4th Cir.
Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v. Harnish, 899 N.E.2d 920, 925 (N.Y.
Rector, Wardens & Vestrymen of Trinity-St. Michael’s Parish,
Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Conn., 620 A.2d 1280, 1285
Parish of the Advent v. Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 688
931 (Mass. 1997); Episcopal Diocese of Mass. v. DeVine, 797 N.E.2d 916,
(Mass. App. Ct. 2003); Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of
Graves, 417 A.2d 19, 24 (N.J. 1980); Daniel v. Wray, 580 S.E.2d 711,
Ct. App. 2003); Bennison v. Sharp, 329 N.W.2d 466, 472 (Mich. Ct. App.
Tea v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 610 P.2d 182, 183 (Nev. 1980).
Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467:
general church, not the local
church, owns the property in question. Although the deeds to the
long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the
beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be
its governing documents. These governing documents make clear that
property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled
local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the
church. When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church
have the right to take the church property with it.”
Amendment and the
doctrine preclude (prohibit, prevent) civil courts from inquiring into
courts may not
generally consider employment
disputes between a religious organization and its clergy (see Ministerial
Exception) because such
necessarily involve questions of internal church discipline, faith, and
organization that are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law.
Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop
1, 16 (1929); Higgins v. Maher (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 1168.
qualified to be a clergy member
of a particular faith is a matter to be determined by the procedures
dictates of that particular faith. Gonzalez,
Religious Grounds for
Limiting Employment Opportunities That Are Protected By
discrimination in employment on the
basis of race, color,
religion, sex, national origin, or age. 42
2000e-2; 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. California
states non-discrimination laws are similar, but also may prohibit
Government Code §12921:
obtain, and hold employment
without discrimination because of race, religious creed, color,
physical disability, mental disability, medical
genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity,
expression, age, or sexual orientation is hereby
recognized as and
be a civil right.
to the religious protections of the First
of the U.S. Constitution, the
government protects of church autonomy (self-governance).
generally do not interfere
with church hiring practices.
law allows religious
consider a person’s religious beliefs in hiring for all positions. McClure
Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553, 558 (5th Cir. 1972). And for hiring clergy (see Ministerial
Exception), none of the federal
non-discrimination regulations apply. Id.
at 558-61; Scharon
v. St. Luke’s Episcopal Presbyterian Hosp., 929 F.2d
(8th Cir. 1991).
law, per the
CA Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), i.e.,
CA Gov. Code, § 12900 et
seq., religious nonprofit organizations are
entirely exempt from these
nondiscriminatory regulations. See California
Government Code § 12926(d).
Healthcare Sacramento (1998)
19 Cal.4th 321 (McKeon), the CA Supreme Court determined that
controlled by the Roman Catholic Church could invoke the
exemption even though not officially incorporated as
a nonprofit religious corporation
under Corporations Code
section 9110 et seq.
an employer is
as a nonprofit religious
association or corporation, it will be exempt from CA FEHA regardless
nature of the employee’s job or the type of discrimination it allegedly
practiced. Kelly v.
of Southern Cal.
(2000) 22 Cal.4th 1108,
Therefore, if a
considers any protected grounds in
its decision to hire based on its beliefs, its bylaws
should so clearly
those beliefs (for example, a church that allows only male pastors,
elders and deacons).
See related article: Christians
Christian Attorney Matthew
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