Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference

Minnesota Church Law - Federal Limits of Judicial Interference

Copyright 2017 – Gary C. Dahle

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – United States Constitution First Amendment

 Addressing the issue of religious freedom, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (the “First Amendment“), provides in part that:

Congress shall make no law 

  • respecting an establishment of religion, (the “Establishment Clause“)
  • or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. (the “Free Exercise Clause“)

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Watson v. Jones – 1871

In 1871, the United States Supreme Court was asked to resolve an internal church dispute between anit-slavery and pro-slavery factions within a Kentucky Presbyterian Church, and declared that the federal government should not intervene in the ecclesiastical affairs of religious associations – out of deference to the rights of those choosing to freely associate together:

In this country the full and free right

  • to entertain any religious belief,
  • to practice any religious principle, and
  • to teach any religious doctrine

which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all.

 Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728-29 (1871).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference – Diversity Jurisdiction

The United States Supreme Court had federal jurisdiction in the Watson v. Jones church property dispute because three of the affected church members lived in the State of Indiana, with the remainder in Kentucky – thereby creating a diversity issue by reason of the multi-state nature of the conflict.

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference – Implied Trust Doctrine

The Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones declined to apply the implied trust doctrine – which was a part of the English common law – and which provided that:

  • in the event of a schism between contending church factions,
  • title to church property remained in that faction which was true to the faith of the founding church members:

 The law knows no heresy, and is committed to

  • the support of no dogma,
  • the establishment of no sect.

            Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728-29 (1871).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference – Church Polity

The Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones noted a distinction between:

  • congregational churches – where the members are in charge, and
  • hierarchical churches – where governing church officials are in charge,

and recommended that deference be given to church tribunals in hierarchical churches which had been established to resolve internal disputes:

The right to organize voluntary religious associations

  • to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and
  • to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association,

is unquestioned.

                 Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728-29 (1871).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference – Deference to Church Tribunals

In Watson v. Jones, the Supreme Court declared that lower courts should defer to the judgments of internal church tribunals because of the voluntary association of members in such organizations:

 All who unite themselves to such a body

  • do so with an implied consent to this government, and
  • are bound to submit to

But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies,

  • if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions
  • could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed.

It is of the essence

  • of these religious unions, and
  • of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves,

that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for.

Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728-29 (1871).

However, the Watson v. Jones decision was based upon federal common law, not constitutional law, and the courts in each state in the union were at liberty to declare the common law within their own jurisdictions:

Watson v. Jones, although it contains a reference to the relations of church and state under our system of laws, was decided without depending upon prohibition of state interference with the free exercise of religion.

It was decided in 1871, before judicial recognition of the coercive power of the Fourteenth Amendment to protect the limitations of the First Amendment against state action . . . .

The opinion radiates, however, a spirit of freedom for religious organizations, an independence from secular control or manipulation, in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference,

  • matters of church government
  • as well as those of faith and doctrine.

                  Kodroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952).

The first decision of this Court regarding the role of civil courts in adjudicating church property disputes was Watson v. Jones.

There the Court canvassed the American authorities and concluded that

  • Where people had chosen to organize themselves into voluntary religious associations, and
  • had agreed to be bound by the decisions of the hierarchy created to govern such associations,
  • the civil courts could not be availed of to hear appeals from otherwise final decisions of such hierarchical authorities.

The bases from which this principle was derived clearly had no constitutional dimension; there was not the slightest suggestion that the First Amendment or any other provision of the Constitution was relevant to the decision of that case . . . .

Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of American and Canada v. Milivojevich, 423, U.S. 696 (1976), Rehnquist dissenting opinion.

In conclusion, while there may be a number of good arguments that civil courts of a State should, as a matter of the wisest use of their authority, avoid adjudicating religious disputes to the maximum extent possible, they obviously cannot avoid all such adjudications.

And while common-law principles like those discussed in Watson, Bouldin, and Gonzalez

  • may offer some sound principles for those occasions when such adjudications are required,
  • they are certainly not rules to which state courts are required to adhere by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The principles which that Amendment, through its incorporation of the First, does enjoin upon the state courts – they remain neutral on matters of religious doctrine.

Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of American and Canada v. Milivojevich, 423, U.S. 696 (1976), Rehnquist dissenting opinion.

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Gonzalez v. Archbishop – 1929

In 1929, the United States Supreme Court – again on federal common law principles – upheld the authority of a local archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church to determine the worthiness of a descendant of a financial benefactor of the church to be appointed to a position within the church – even though the potential appointee’s claim to the position was essentially based upon the implied trust doctrine:

In the absence of fraud, collusion or arbitrariness,

  • the decisions of the proper church tribunals on matters purely ecclesiastical, although affecting civil rights,
  • are accepted in litigation before the secular courts as conclusive,
  • since the parties in interest made them so by contract or otherwise.

Gonzalez v. Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 16-17 (1929).

By reason of the first clause in the above paragraph, the United States Supreme Court opened the door to judicial review of church decisions which were based upon fraud, collusion or arbitrariness – even in hierarchical churches.

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Kodroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral – 1952

In 1952, the United States Supreme Court considered the possibility that fraud, collusion or arbitrariness was involved in the church controversy before the Court, but found no impropriety:

Freedom to select the clergy, where no improper methods of choice are proven, we think, must now be said to have federal constitutional protection as part of the free exercise of religion against state interference.

                Kodroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

As originally adopted, the First Amendment applied only to laws enacted by the United States Congress.

However, the United States Supreme Court eventually declared the First Amendment to be applicable to each state in the union, pursuant to the provisions of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Kodroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral – decided in 1952 by the United States Supreme Court – involved a dispute over which church faction should control the New York City cathedral of the Russian Orthodox.

In 1933, the local archbishop was appointed by the head of the worldwide Russian Orthodox Church – the patriarch of Moscow.

However, in light of suspected domination of the Moscow patriarch by the Communists in the Soviet Union, a different archbishop was appointed by other local officials of the church.

In light of the anti-Communist fervor of the time, the New York state legislature took official state action to declare that:

  • the local church officials in New York controlled the New York City cathedral, and other church property,
  • not the archbishop appointed by the patriarch of Moscow.

The United States Supreme Court declared such state action to be an improper intrusion into the church’s internal affairs:

Here there is a transfer by statute of control over churches.

This violates our rule of separation between church and state….

                Kodroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Neutral Principles of Law Analysis

In 1969, the United States Supreme Court declared that courts could resolve church property disputes without violating the U.S. Constitution pursuant to neutral principles of law:

Civil courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion merely by opening their doors to disputes involving church property.

And there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without “establishing” churches to which property is awarded.

But First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.

Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969)

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Jones v. Wolf – 1976

Constitutional limitations do not require that Minnesota or any other State follow any specified method for resolving church property disputes, so long as the method which is used employs a neutral principles of law analysis.

See Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 602 (1976).

At least in general outline, we think the “neutral principles of law” approach is consistent with the foregoing constitutional principles.

The neutral-principles approach was approved in Maryland & Va. Churches,  . .  . , an appeal from a judgment of the Court of Appeals of Maryland settling a local church property dispute on the basis of

  • the language of the deeds,
  • the terms of the local church charters,
  • the state statutes governing the holding of church property, and
  • the provisions in the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property.

Finding that this analysis entailed “no inquiry into religious doctrine,” the Court dismissed the appeal for want of a substantial federal question.

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 602, 603 (1976), citing Maryland & Va. Churches, 396 U. S., at 368.

The neutral principles of law approach is generally taken by the courts because it tends to avoid most entanglement problems by the court in the religious affairs of a church.

These problems, in addition, should be gradually eliminated as recognition is given to the obligation of States, religious organizations, and individuals to structure relationships involving church property so as not to require the civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical questions.” 

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 604 (punctuation and citations omitted).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – The Minnesota Supreme Court – 1982

In 1982, the Minnesota Supreme Court provided additional guidance with respect to the neutral principles of law analysis:

A neutral principles of law analysis relies upon

  • the language of deeds,
  • the terms of local church charters,
  • state statutes governing the holding of church property,
  • provisions in the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property,
  • explicit trust provisions, and
  • general rules of property law.

Piletich v. Deretich, 328 N.W.2d 696, 700 Minn., 1982, citing Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 602, 603 (1976).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Church Tribunals

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court identified that if hierarchical churches have created:

  • rules for resolving disputes, and
  • tribunals for hearing such matters,

civil courts are required to honor their decisions:

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 Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of American and Canada v. Milivojevich, 423, U.S. 696 (1976).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Jones v. Wolf – 1979

In 1979, the United States Supreme Court provided additional guidance with respect to the neutral principles of law analysis in order to avoid violating the First Amendment:

The State has an obvious and legitimate interest

  • in the peaceful resolution of property disputes, and
  • in providing a civil forum where the ownership of church property can be determined conclusively.

It is also clear, however, that

“the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes.”

Most importantly, the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from resolving church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice.

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of American and Canada v. Milivojevich, 423, U.S. 696 (1976), and Md. & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Church, 396 U.S. 367 (1970).

As a corollary of this commandment, the Amendment requires that civil courts defer

  • to the resolution of issues of religious doctrine or polity
  • by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization.

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for the United States of American and Canada v. Milivojevich, 423, U.S. 696 (1976), Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728-29 (1871).

Subject to these limitations, however, the First Amendment does not dictate that a State must follow a particular method of resolving church property disputes.

Indeed,

“a state may adopt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith.”

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), citing Md. & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Church, 396 U.S. 367 (1970).

At least in general outline, we think the “neutral principles of law” approach is consistent with the foregoing constitutional principles . . . .

The principal advantages of [that] approach are that it is

  • completely secular in operation, and
  • yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organization and polity.

The method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges.

It thereby promises to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.

Furthermore, the neutral principles analysis shares the peculiar genius of

private-law systems in general – in ordering private rights and obligations to reflect the intentions of the parties.

Through appropriate reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify

  • what is to happen to religious property in the event of a particular contingency, or
  • what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal controversy.

In this manner, a religious organization can ensure that a dispute over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires of the members.

This is not to say that the application of the neutral principles approach is wholly free of difficulty. . . .

[In cases where] the interpretation of the instruments of ownership would require the civil court to resolve a religious controversy, then the court must defer to the resolution of the doctrinal issue by the authoritative ecclesiastical body.

           Serbian Orthodox Diocese.

We therefore hold that a State is constitutionally entitled to adopt neutral principles of law as a means of adjudicating a church property dispute.

 Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – The Establishment Clause

The Establishment Clause is the first of the religion clauses identified in the First Amendment.

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – Lemon v. Kurtzman – 1971

In 1971, the United States Supreme Court addressed the Establishment Clause in the following manner:

The language of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment is, at best, opaque, particularly when compared with other portions of the Amendment.

Its authors did not simply prohibit the establishment of a state church or a state religion, an area history shows they regarded as very important and fraught with great dangers.

Instead, they commanded that there should be

no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

A law may be one “respecting” the forbidden objective while falling short of its total realization.

A law “respecting” the proscribed result, that is, the establishment of religion, is not always easily identifiable as one violative of the Clause.

A given law might not establish a state religion, but nevertheless be one “respecting” that end in the sense of being a step that could lead to such establishment, and hence offend the First Amendment.

In the absence of precisely stated constitutional prohibitions, we must draw lines with reference to the three main evils against which the Establishment Clause was intended to afford protection:

sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity.”

 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111-12, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), citing Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, 668 (1970).

Every analysis in this area must begin with consideration of the cumulative criteria developed by the Court over many years.

Three such tests may be gleaned from our cases.

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion,

            Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236, 243 (1968);

finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

 Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111-12, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), citing Walz v. Tax Commission, 397 U.S. 664, 674 (1970).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – The Minnesota Supreme Court – 1992

 In 1992, the Minnesota Supreme Court provided additional guidance with respect to the Establishment Clause:

The establishment clause is the second facet of first amendment analysis and prohibits the making of laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d 857, 863 (Minn., 1992), citing U.S. Const. amend. 1.

In order to be valid under the establishment clause, a governmental regulation

  • must have a secular purpose,
  • must neither inhibit nor advance religion in its primary effect, and
  • must not foster excessive governmental entanglement with religion.

 Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d 857, 863 (Minn., 1992), citing Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-13, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111-12, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971).

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – The Free Exercise Clause

The Free Exercise Clause is the second concept identified in the First Amendment.

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court identified that the government must demonstrate a compelling interest before denying unemployment compensation to someone who refused to work on Saturday – her religious day of worship:

The door of the Free Exercise Clause stands tightly closed against any governmental regulation of religious beliefs as such,

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U. S. 296, 310 U. S. 303.

Government may neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief,

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U. S. 488

nor penalize or discriminate against individuals or groups because they hold religious views abhorrent to the authorities,

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing Fowler v. Rhode Island, 345 U. S. 67

nor employ the taxing power to inhibit the dissemination of particular religious views,

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U. S. 105; Follett v. McCormick, 321 U. S. 573; cf. Grosjean v. American Press Co.,297 U. S. 233.           

On the other hand, the Court has rejected challenges under the Free Exercise Clause to governmental regulation of certain overt acts prompted by religious beliefs or principles, for

even when the action is in accord with one’s religious convictions, [it] is not totally free from legislative restrictions.”

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U. S. 599, 366 U. S. 603.

The conduct or actions so regulated have invariably posed some substantial threat to public safety, peace or order.

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing Reynolds v. United States, 98 U. S. 145; Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11; Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U. S. 158; Cleveland v. United States, 329 U. S. 14.

If, therefore, the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court is to withstand appellant’s constitutional challenge, it must be either

  • because her disqualification as a beneficiary represents no infringement by the State of her constitutional rights of free exercise, or
  • because any incidental burden on the free exercise of appellant’s religion may be justified by a “compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate. . . .”

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398,402 (1963), citing NAACP v. Button, 371 U. S. 415, 371 U. S. 438.

Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits – The Compelling Interest Test

The Sherbert decision established the requirement that the government demonstrate a compelling interest before infringing on the Free Exercise rights of the citizens.

The compelling interest test was replaced for a short time by the Smith decision – Employment Division v. Smith 494 U.S. 872 (1990) – which held that:

  • as long as a law does not target a particular religious practice,
  • it does not violate the Free Exercise Clause.

However, the compelling interest test was restored by the U.S. Congress in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993, although its application was limited by the Supreme Court to federal laws only.

See City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997) and Gonzales v. O Centro Esprita Beneficente Unio do Vegetal, 546 U.S. 418 (2006).

Conclusion – Minnesota Church Law – Federal Limits of Judicial Interference

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides certain protections to American Citizens regarding their religious rights.

When the issues to be determined before a Minnesota Court are limited to:

  • property ownership, and
  • qualification for membership in the church,

such issues can be addressed without unnecessary entanglement by the court in religious matters by applying a neutral principles of law approach.

If you or your church have certain issues requiring the assistance of a Minnesota Church Corporation Law attorney, please contact attorney Gary C. Dahle, at 763-780-8390, or gary@dahlelaw.com.

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Phone:  763-780-8390  Fax: 763-780-1735

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