There are few areas of the law that present more perplexing questions for courts than the adjudication of church conflicts. Cases that involve controversies over the internal governance of a church, ownership or control of church property, pastoral leadership or financial management of a church can be challenging because they often turn on a question of jurisdiction.
The word jurisdiction is a combination of two Latin words: “juris” which means “of right”, and “diction” which means “to speak”. Taken together, jurisdiction means the right of a court to speak to, or judge a case or controversy.
Over the centuries, and particularly since the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, there has been intense debate surrounding the proper role of civil courts in deciding cases involving church controversies. During the settlement of the American colonies there was a great proliferation of several religious sects and denominations, many of which fled Europe because of persecution. When the founders drafted our Constitution and Bill of Rights, one of their first priorities was to provide protection for religious freedom and church autonomy. The First Amendment was the first time in human history that a government carved out an express right of individuals to worship freely without fear of government reprisal or interference.
The ideal of religious liberty enshrined in the First Amendment is a dual protection which students of the Constitution recognize as consisting of two separate clauses of that Amendment: The “establishment clause” provides “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. The “free exercise clause” finishes out this sentence with the phrase: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Both of these clauses serve as important protections for both individuals and churches from government intrusion into the affairs of religion.
Christianity is split between top-down Catholic-Orthodox episcopal hierarchies and Calvinist-Evangelical bottom-up congregational forms of church governance. In modern culture, churches do not always consist of merely a sanctuary and a baptistry. Quite often they have complex, corporate structures with branching faith-based affiliations like a church school, college, hospital, healthcare center, retreat or orphanage. Each of these church extensions are inextricably intertwined with the ministry, doctrine, culture and spirit of their sponsoring church.
Like their secular counterparts, church-run organizations are not immune from internal legal conflicts. What distinguishes them from non-sectarian corporations is that these conflicts often involve doctrine-based issues. For example, several staff members in such organizations may be regarded as clergy. So, what happens when these conflicts pour over into civil lawsuits? What if the key to resolving such conflicts turns on a religious question? How should our courts respond?
In my book A Call To Order, I address how churches can better protect themselves against the threat of civil lawsuits, and what to do if faced with a lawsuit over some internal church split or other legal issue. Some careful pro-active planning and drafting of bylaws and a mission statement or other internal governing documents can provide courts with direction and a religious-neutral approach to resolving such church disputes, while insulating churches from costly and unnecessary litigation.
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, or know a pastor or religious leader whom you believe may benefit from this book, you may find it on-line at Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
Larry L. Crain – www.crainlaw.legal