Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine

Representing a religious nonprofit corporation can be challenging.  I was involved in litigation when a nonprofit religious corporation terminated a member of this congregation in violation of the bylaws and basic employment law.  The issue became whether the courts would hear this case or abstain citing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.  This doctrine states that “Religious (or ecclesiastical) abstention compels courts to abstain from resolving religious issues. Courts instead yield to the decision of the highest religious tribunal to address the issue. “In short, the First and Fourteenth Amendments permit hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government, and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes over these matters. When this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding upon them.” (Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, supra, 426 U.S. at pp. 724-725.)”

I came across a case where the man in charge was accused of sexually assaulting a female member of the church.  A high ranking member was investigating the sexual assault allegations.  The man being investigated terminated the membership of the man who was investigating him.  The court would not hear his wrongful termination lawsuit citing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

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