Churches in Court
Discipline of Religious Groups’ Members
A third type of case involves disputes concerning how a religious organization treats its members. This includes a wide range of scenarios, such as a religious group’s excommunication of someone in its congregation or disclosure of embarrassing information about that individual. Courts have generally examined these cases in the same way they have examined church property disputes and ministerial employment actions – that is, by following the principle that government officials must never make decisions based on religious doctrine. Indeed, just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Watson v. Jones (1871) that courts may not resolve church property disputes by interpreting religious doctrine, the high court reaffirmed that stance in Bouldin v. Alexander, a significant but rarely cited case involving a conflict over how a church treated several of its members.
Bouldin v. Alexander (1872)
The Bouldin case arose after several African-Americans formed a Baptist congregation in the District of Columbia in 1857. Led by the Rev. Albert Bouldin, this group quickly grew in number and resources, and eventually purchased a house of worship. Four congregants were named as trustees to hold ownership of the property, and seven other congregants were elected as general trustees to govern the congregation. Just a few years after moving into the new house of worship, however, the congregation divided into two factions, with a small minority of the congregants following Bouldin. Soon after, the faction led by Bouldin voted to replace the four existing trustees and to excommunicate 41 members of the congregation. The new trustees also changed the church’s door locks so that only Bouldin and his trustees had access to the property. The original trustees sued Bouldin for illegally seizing the property and taking over the board. Bouldin responded that the general trustees had no authority because they had not been properly elected.
The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in 1872 that Bouldin’s faction did not have the legal authority to replace the trustees or to excommunicate the 41 congregants. The high court explained that its ruling was based on what it called “temporalities” – secular legal principles – and not on interpretation of the church’s religious doctrines. The court said that civil courts do not have the power to evaluate whether a congregation should have elected or removed particular members but that civil courts do have the power to determine whether such a decision was actually made by the congregation. Because Bouldin’s group was the minority faction, the court found that Bouldin’s actions did not represent the views of a majority of the congregation and were therefore illegal.
The Bouldin case is the only U.S. Supreme Court decision to rule on the validity of a religious organization’s disciplinary actions. In fact, most of these cases have been heard in state rather than federal courts because they have usually involved only common torts (such as defamation) or contract claims and have not raised the kinds of legal questions that would allow a lawsuit to be brought in federal court.8
In hearing these cases, however, state courts generally have followed the principle underlying the Supreme Court’s decision in Bouldin: that courts may review a religious organization’s disciplinary actions only if such a ruling would not require them to interpret religious doctrine. For example, in Baugh v. Thomas (1970), the New Jersey Supreme Court considered whether it had authority to review a congregation’s vote not to reinstate an expelled member. After the expelled member claimed that the congregation’s vote was invalid because the votes were tabulated incorrectly, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that it could adjudicate the issue because “except in cases involving religious doctrine, we can see no reason for treating religious organizations differently from other nonprofit voluntary associations.”
Similarly, some state courts have applied this principle to cases involving shunning, a practice whereby a church or religious organization punishes a current or former member of the organization by prohibiting all contact between the broader membership and that individual. Several religious groups, such as the Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses, use such ostracism to encourage the shunned member to repent and to deter others in the group from engaging in the type of behavior that led to the shunning.
Several types of lawsuits can arise from shunning, such as a claim that the religious organization intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the shunned individual. One high-profile shunning case was Bear v. Reformed Mennonite Church (1975). It involved a man, Robert Bear, who, after criticizing his Reformed Mennonite Church, was excommunicated and shunned. Bear sought legal remedies for the damage that this shunning allegedly inflicted on his marital and business relationships. The church countered that if a court granted these remedies, it would unconstitutionally burden the church’s religious practice of shunning. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court applied the governing free exercise law at that time, as stated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Sherbert v. Verner (1963). In Sherbert, the high court had ruled that when a religious practice comes into conflict with a law, the Free Exercise Clause protects that practice unless the government can show that it has a “compelling interest” in enforcing the law in question. Applying this test, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that the Free Exercise Clause would protect the church’s practice of shunning unless the shunned member could demonstrate that the state had a compelling interest in preserving his marital and business relationships. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not evaluate the state’s interest, however, because there had not been a trial and the court was therefore uncertain whether the church had acted in the way that Bear alleged. So the court sent the case back to the trial court to resolve these factual issues. At trial, Bear lost the case after the lower court ruled that he was unable to show that the church had intentionally harmed him, thus leaving open the question of whether the state had a compelling interest in a case like this.
A decade-and-a-half after Bear, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Employment Division v. Smith (1990), largely did away with the compelling interest test in free exercise cases, and thereby shifted the balance, in most situations, in favor of the government and its laws rather than the religious practice.9 Following the Smith ruling, congregations can no longer rely on the compelling interest test to defend practices like shunning. Nonetheless, religious organizations are likely to retain a significant degree of protection for those practices through the principles invoked in church property and ministerial exception cases. Those principles bar courts from resolving questions of religious doctrine, and shunning disputes involve, in significant part, the fundamental issue of who should or should not be considered a member of a religious community.
Likewise, courts might use this principle to resolve a similar but distinct type of case, one that arises when a religious organization punishes a member not by shunning the person but by revealing some embarrassing information about the individual. The Oklahoma Supreme Court encountered such a situation in Guinn v. Church of Christ (1989), a high-profile case that arose after the elders of a Church of Christ congregation in Collinsville, Okla., sought to punish a member, Marian Guinn, for having a sexual relationship with a man who was not a member of the church. After the elders threatened to tell the congregation about her relationship, she notified the elders of her withdrawal from the church. Claiming that only they could end Guinn’s membership in the church, the elders proceeded to advise congregants that they were prohibited from contacting Guinn unless it was for the purpose of encouraging her repentance. The elders also sent announcements of her sexual activities to nearby Church of Christ congregations. Guinn filed a suit against the church in which she alleged that the church’s publication of this information caused her emotional stress and invaded her privacy. After Guinn prevailed in her suit, with the jury awarding her $390,000 in damages, the church appealed to the Oklahoma Supreme Court on the grounds that the jury’s award violated the Free Exercise Clause by burdening the church’s ability to follow its interpretation of the Gospel calling on Christians to publicize moral transgressions.
In considering the church’s constitutional argument, the Oklahoma Supreme Court distinguished between the periods before and after Guinn notified the church of her wish to end her membership. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in church property cases, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that religious organizations have a constitutional right to control their internal affairs as they wish, free from government regulation or civil liability. Applying this right to the case at hand, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the Church of Christ could not be found liable for any of the actions it took against Guinn before she notified the elders of her withdrawal from the church. Up to this point, the court explained, Guinn’s conduct and the church’s response to it fell within the church’s internal affairs. After her withdrawal, however, her conduct no longer had any bearing on the church’s internal affairs because she was no longer a church member. Indeed, the court declared, the elders’ rejection of her withdrawal had no legal significance because the Free Exercise Clause guarantees individuals the right to decide for themselves whether to resign from a religious organization. Therefore, the court concluded, Guinn had the right to pursue legal action against the church but only for actions that the church took after she notified the elders of her resignation. (As it turned out, the case was never retried because the parties settled out of court.)
Three years later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court clarified this principle in Hadnot v. Shaw (1992), a case involving a conflict between a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints congregation and Jeanne A. Hadnot, one of its members. When the church heard allegations concerning extramarital sexual activity by Hadnot, the congregation decided to hold a hearing to determine whether to excommunicate her. The church requested that Hadnot attend the hearing, but when she did not appear, the church sent a letter to her home explaining that her membership had been terminated because of her alleged affair. After Hadnot’s husband opened and read the letter, Hadnot sued the church, alleging that the disclosure of this information to her husband, as well as to her fellow congregants during the disciplinary hearing, had caused her emotional distress.
Applying the standard enunciated in its Guinn decision, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the church’s disclosure of Hadnot’s affair was constitutionally protected because, unlike in the Guinn case (which involved the church releasing potentially damaging information after Marion Guinn had left the congregation), this disclosure was part of the church’s process of excommunicating Hadnot.
Slightly different from the claims asserted in Guinn and Hadnot is a legal action for defamation, which involves the disclosure of false information that damages a person’s reputation. Such a claim arose in McNair v. Worldwide Church of God (1987). The case arose in Pasadena, Calif., and involved a dispute between the Worldwide Church of God and Leona McNair, the ex-wife of one of its ministers, Raymond McNair. The minister’s divorce had created controversy within the church, which strongly opposes divorce. In an annual meeting of ministers and in a pastoral publication, the director of pastoral administration explained that the McNair divorce was justified under church doctrine because for two years Ms. McNair had refused to maintain a marital relationship with Mr. McNair. Claiming that this was not true, Ms. McNair sued the church for defamation. After the jury ruled in Ms. McNair’s favor, the case went to a California intermediate appellate court on the question of whether the director’s statements could provide the basis for a defamation action.
The California court began its analysis by explaining that defamation law ordinarily would allow Ms. McNair to recover damages if she simply demonstrated that the director’s false statements about her damaged her reputation. But, the court declared, this was not an ordinary defamation case because it involved an official church statement about the meaning of its doctrine. Indeed, the court held, it could not treat this like a normal defamation case because threatening religious organizations with liability for defamation might suppress religious speech.
To determine how it should adjudicate the case, the California court looked to the U.S. Supreme Court’s precedents involving defamation cases brought by public officials. In these cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that because it is important to a free society that the media and private individuals have some latitude to criticize public officials, the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment requires a stricter standard when a public official alleges defamation. Under this standard, a public official must not only satisfy the ordinary defamation requirement that the statement in question be false and damaging to an individual’s reputation, the official must also demonstrate that the person making the statement either knew the statement was false or was aware of a high probability that it was false.
Based on these free speech precedents, the California court reasoned that the same heightened standard should apply to defamation cases involving a minister’s explanation of religious doctrine. Therefore, the court concluded, Ms. McNair could prevail only if she could satisfy the stricter standard – in this case that the director’s statement regarding Ms. McNair was false, that it had damaged her reputation and that the director had made the statement knowing it was untrue or likely untrue. The case was then retried, and a jury, using the stricter standard outlined by the appellate court, once again determined that Ms. McNair had been defamed.
Although a defamation case involves constitutionally distinctive issues, the McNair decision resembles the other cases involving a religious organization’s treatment of its members. In all of these cases, courts tend to employ a highly deferential approach similar to that which governs internal disputes over church property and matters of ministerial employment.
8 A tort involves a claim of injury brought in civil, as opposed to criminal, court. Common tort claims may involve physical injuries, such as those that arise from auto accidents or defective products, or injuries to reputation from defamation or libel. (return to text)
9 In Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court upheld the denial of unemployment compensation to two Native American drug rehabilitation counselors who had been dismissed because they had ingested the hallucinogen peyote as part of a religious ritual. For more details, see the Pew Forum report A Delicate Balance: The Free Exercise Clause and the Supreme Court (October 2007). (return to text)
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