The Lawletter Vol 40 No 12
Setting aside the cases involving criminal misconduct by priests and others affiliated with certain Roman Catholic Church dioceses, the First Amendment precludes courts from interfering with the internal operations and activities of churches. Few principles are more firmly enshrined in our body of constitutional law than that government, including the courts, should not become entangled in the internal or doctrinal affairs of churches. To do so would offend the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. For over a century, the Supreme Court has directed that courts may not entangle themselves in the internal functions of churches. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 728-29 (1871).
Churches are at liberty to make employment decisions that are arbitrary, even capricious, and those decisions are immune from judicial scrutiny. Young v. N. Ill. Conference of United Methodist Church, 21 F.3d 184, 187 (7th Cir. 1994). To permit courts to review decisions that are alleged to be arbitrary or unreasonable would be to allow courts to inquire into internal doctrinal matters, and the courts may not do that. There are circumstances where a court may inquire into an action taken by a church, but those circumstances are rare and typically involve, for example, the contractual obligations between the church and an unaffiliated third party, such as a contractor repairing the roof of the church building. Those decisions, however, implicate no doctrinal issues, unlike the employment of a pastor, which is intimately bound up with a church's doctrinal principles. Thus, civil courts, as a general proposition, are not a constitutionally permissible forum for a review of ecclesiastical disputes. Serb. E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 710 (1976).
The application of the foregoing principles, however, can involve fine distinctions. In Davis v. Williams, 774 S.E.2d 889 (N.C. Ct. App. 2015), the court was asked to referee a dispute between the pastor and his supporters and a dissident group alleging, inter alia, violations of the church's bylaws regarding voting. Reluctant to enter this constitutional thicket, the court concluded that it could resolve disputes through "neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes." Id. at 892 (quoting Johnson v. Antioch United Holy Church, Inc., 714 S.E.2d 806, 810 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011)). "The dispositive question is whether resolution of the legal claim requires the court to interpret or weigh church doctrine." Id. (quoting Smith v. Privette, 495 S.E.2d 395, 398 (N.C. Ct. App. 1998)). Thus, the court could decide whether the church violated its own bylaws in conducting a vote regarding proposed amendments to the bylaws.
The plaintiffs also brought claims against the pastor for conversion and embezzlement/obtaining property by false pretenses. The court held, however, that determining whether actions, including expenditures, by a church's pastor, secretary, and chairman of the board of trustees were proper would require an examination of the church's view of the role of the pastor, staff, and church leaders, their authority and compensation, and church management. Because a church's religious doctrine and practice affect its understanding of each of these concepts, seeking a court's review of those matters is no different from asking a court to determine whether a particular church's grounds for membership are spiritually or doctrinally correct or whether a church's charitable pursuits accord with the congregation's beliefs. None of these issues could be addressed using neutral principles of law.
These kinds of issues recur in many jurisdictions, but the authority applying North Carolina law is particularly well developed. There are a number of cases involving the so-called "ministerial exception" to the exercise of jurisdiction wending their way through the courts, including in North Carolina. Stay tuned.