Go to Christian-Attorney.Net Homepage

Return to Christian Legal Chronicles

Church Autonomy and Separation of Church and State

 Issue: When a dispute arises within a Christian or other church (intra-church dispute or conflict), does government court have a legal right to adjudicate the dispute?

 Answer: Generally, government courts may not interfere with intra-church disputes relating to religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization.  Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 724-25 (1976); Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1872). Serbian Orthodox Diocese v.Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 710; Maryland & Va. Churches v. SharpsburgChurch, 396 U.S. 367, 368 (1970); Presbyterian Church I v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969) .

 Why? Ruling on such matters would foster excessive government "entanglement" with religion and, thus, violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause and/or free exercise clause.  Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 709, 713 (1976).

 Note: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"

Exceptions to Hands-Off Rule: The civil courts may adjudicate a church-related dispute when the dispute can be resolved by applying “neutral principles of law” without inquiry into religious doctrine.  Church property disputes commonly fall under this category.

Further, the U.S.Constitution permits courts to inquire into matters involving churches and religious issues when crimes or torts have occurred. Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602-604 (1979).

 A “tort” is typically a non-contractual civil wrong such as, for example, assault, battery, defamation, negligence (auto accidents, dog bite, dangerous property conditions, etc.), professional malpractice, and so on.

Reason for the Exception: 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. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 878-79 (1990).


- Church Property Disputes:

 State courts may choose various “methods” or approaches to resolve church property disputes as long as the method a does not violate the First Amendment. Episcopal Church Cases, 45 Cal.4th 467 (2009).

Courts typically choose between two tests for resolving church property disputes:

(1) “Highest Church Authority” Approach.  This method requires civil courts to accept as binding decisions made by the highest church self-governing authority that 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 autonomy.

 (2) “Neutral Principles of Law.”  This method requires civil courts to apply the same general neutral legal principles to church property disputes that apply to other secular property disputes.

 Which of these two approaches should a court use?

 In 2009, the California Supreme Court stated that:

 “…if resolution of the property dispute involves a doctrinal dispute, the court must defer to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the doctrinal point.

 But to the extent the court can resolve the property dispute without reference to church doctrine, it should use what the United States Supreme Court has called the ‘neutral principles of law’ approach." 

 Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467

 What authority and sources of information should the court use to decide the church property issue?

 “The court should consider sources such as the deeds to the property in dispute, the local church's articles of incorporation, the general church's constitution [bylaws], canons, and rules, and relevant [government] statutes, including statutes specifically concerning religious property, such as Corporations Code section 9142.”  Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467

Hierarchical Church Trust Agreements: Numerous states have concluded that properly worded express trust provisions preclude a dissident majority of a local congregation from retaining local 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. 2002);; Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v. Harnish, 899 N.E.2d 920, 925 (N.Y. 2008); Rector, Wardens & Vestrymen of Trinity-St. Michael’s Parish, Inc. v. Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Conn., 620 A.2d 1280, 1285 (Conn.1993); Parish of the Advent v. Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Mass., 688 N.E.2d 923, 931 (Mass. 1997); Episcopal Diocese of Mass. v. DeVine, 797 N.E.2d 916, 923 (Mass. App. Ct. 2003); Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of N.J. v. Graves, 417 A.2d 19, 24 (N.J. 1980); Daniel v. Wray, 580 S.E.2d 711, 718 (N.C. Ct. App. 2003); Bennison v. Sharp, 329 N.W.2d 466, 472 (Mich. Ct. App. 1982); Tea v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 610 P.2d 182, 183 (Nev. 1980).


    Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467:

“We conclude…that the general church, not the local church, owns the property in question. Although the deeds to the property have 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 bound by its governing documents. These governing documents make clear that church property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled by the local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the general church. When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it.”

    - Church Employment Disputes:

 The First Amendment and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine preclude (prohibit, prevent) civil courts from inquiring into ecclesiastical matters.

 For example, courts may not generally consider employment disputes between a religious organization and its clergy (see Ministerial Exception) because such matters necessarily involve questions of internal church discipline, faith, and organization that are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law. Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, 280 U.S. 1, 16 (1929); Higgins v. Maher (1989) 210 Cal.App.3d 1168.

Whether an individual is qualified to be a clergy member of a particular faith is a matter to be determined by the procedures and dictates of that particular faith. Gonzalez, 280 U.S. at 16.

    Religious Grounds for Limiting Employment Opportunities That Are Protected By Anti-Discrimination Laws:

 Federal law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, or age. 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2; 29 U.S.C. 621 et seq.  California and other states non-discrimination laws are similar, but also may prohibit discrimination on other grounds.

 California Government Code 12921:

 The opportunity to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, or sexual orientation is hereby recognized as and declared to be a civil right.

Due to the religious protections of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the government protects of church autonomy (self-governance).  Thus, governments generally do not interfere with church hiring practices. 

Federal law allows religious organizations to consider a person’s religious beliefs in hiring for all positions. McClure v. 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 360 (8th Cir. 1991).  

  And under California 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 various nondiscriminatory regulations. See California Government Code 12926(d).

In McKeon v. Mercy Healthcare Sacramento (1998) 19 Cal.4th 321  (McKeon), the CA Supreme Court determined that a hospital controlled by the Roman Catholic Church could invoke the religious-entity exemption even though not officially incorporated as a nonprofit religious corporation under Corporations Code section 9110 et seq. 

If an employer is qualified as a nonprofit religious association or corporation, it will be exempt from CA FEHA regardless of the nature of the employee’s job or the type of discrimination it allegedly practiced.  Kelly v. Methodist Hospital of Southern Cal. (2000) 22 Cal.4th 1108, 1119.

 Therefore, if a church considers any protected grounds in its decision to hire based on its beliefs, its bylaws should so clearly state those beliefs (for example, a church that allows only male pastors, elders and deacons).

See related article: Christians and Lawsuits

Author: Christian Attorney Matthew B. Tozer


Copyright 2012.  All rights reserved

Go to Christian-Attorney.Net Homepage

Return to Christian Legal Chronicles