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).Read More