Minnesota Church Law – State Limits of Judicial Interference

Minnesota Church Law - State Limits of Judicial Interference

Minnesota Church Law – State Limits of Judicial Interference

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“)

The Minnesota Constitution – Article 1, § 16

 (i)      Additional Religious Rights in Minnesota

While similar in purpose to the First Amendment, Article 1, § 16 of the Minnesota Constitution provides additional religious rights to Minnesotans, by providing in part as follows:

The right of every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience shall never be infringed;  (the “Freedom of Conscience Clause“)

 nor shall any man be compelled

  • to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or
  • to maintain any religious or ecclesiastical ministry,

against his consent; nor shall 

  • any control of or interference with the rights of conscience be permitted, or
  • any preference be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship;

 (ii)     Limitations on Religious Rights in Minnesota

While Article 1, § 16 of the Minnesota Constitution provides additional religious rights to Minnesotans, it also identifies certain restrictions on the exercise of religious rights by Minnesotans, by providing in part as follows:

but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be so construed as to 

  • excuse acts of licentiousness or
  • justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the state,

(iii)    No Disbursement of State Funds for Religious Purposes in Minnesota

Article 1, § 16 of the Minnesota Constitution also identifies a prohibition on the disbursement of state funds for the advancement of religious ideas, by providing in part as follows:

 nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any

  • religious societies or
  • religious or theological seminaries.

Minnesota Church Law – The Minnesota Constitution – Article 1, § 17

 (i)      No Religious Tests in Minnesota

Article 1, § 17 of the Minnesota Constitution identifies certain restrictions on inquiries by the State of Minnesota in regards to a person’s religious orientation in political matters, by providing in part as follows:

No religious test . . . shall be required as a qualification for any office of public trust in the state.

No religious test . . . shall be required as a qualification of any voter at any election in this state;

(ii)     No Disqualification of Witnesses in Minnesota

Article 1, § 17 of the Minnesota Constitution also prohibits the disqualification of the testimony of any person by reason of such person’s religious beliefs, by providing in part as follows:

nor shall any person be rendered incompetent to give evidence in any court of law or equity in consequence of his opinion upon the subject of religion.

Minnesota Church Law – Judicial Review of Religion

By reason of both:

  • the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – as applied to Minnesota through the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and
  • Article 1, § 16 and § 17 of the Minnesota Constitution,

the State of Minnesota, and in particular, its courts, are prevented from unduly interfering with the religious beliefs and practices of its citizens.

However, determining the permissible limits of such interference has been, and remains, a work in progress.

Minnesota Church Law – The Minnesota Supreme Court – 1990

In 1990, the Minnesota Supreme Court declared that the Minnesota Constitution provides broader protections to its citizens in religious matters than does the United States Constitution:

Minn. Const. art. I, Sec. 16 . . .  is of a distinctively stronger character than the federal counterpart, which states only that

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof * * *.”

State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn., 1990), citing U.S. Const. amend. I.

Whereas 

  • the first amendment establishes a limit on government action at the point of prohibiting the exercise of religion,
  • section 16 precludes even an infringement on or an interference with religious freedom.

Accordingly, government actions

  • that may not constitute an outright prohibition on religious practices (thus not violating the first amendment)
  • could nonetheless infringe on or interfere with those practices, violating the Minnesota Constitution.

 Commentators have noted

the state Bill of Rights expressly grants affirmative rights in the area[s] of * * * religious worship while the corresponding federal provision simply attempts to restrain governmental action.” . . .

Section 16 also expressly limits the governmental interests that may outweigh religious liberty.

Only the government’s interest in peace or safety or against acts of licentiousness will excuse an imposition on religious freedom under the Minnesota Constitution.

Conversely, the free exercise clause of the first amendment has been interpreted to allow varied government interests to justify such an imposition. . .

Because section 16

  • precludes an infringement on or an interference withreligious freedom and
  • limits the permissible countervailing interests of the government,

Minnesotans are afforded greater protection for religious liberties against governmental action under the state constitution than under the first amendment of the federal constitution.

State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn., 1990)

Minnesota Church Law – Minnesota Court of Appeals – 1991

In 1991, the Minnesota Court of Appeals identified certain excessive entanglement limitations on the Courts by the First Amendment:

Whether governmental regulation creates excessive entanglement typically depends on

  • the character and purpose of the institution involved,
  • the nature of the regulation’s intrusion into religious administration, and
  • the resulting relationship between the government and the religious authority.

BLACK V. SYNDER 471 N.W.2d 715 Minn App. (1991), citing Lemon at 614-15, 91 S.Ct. at 2112.

When claims involve “core” questions of church discipline and internal governance, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the inevitable danger of governmental entanglement precludes judicial review.

 BLACK V. SYNDER 471 N.W.2d 715 Minn App. (1991), citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 717, 721, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 2384, 2386, 49 L.Ed.2d 151 (1976).

Relying on Milivojevich, the federal courts have refrained from enforcing litigants’ claims that require

  “a searching and therefore impermissible inquiry into church doctrine.”

BLACK V. SYNDER 471 N.W.2d 715 Minn App. (1991), citing Minker, 894 F.2d at 1359-60 (quoting Milivojevich 426 U.S. at 723, 96 S.Ct. at 2387).

Minnesota Church Law – The Minnesota Supreme Court – 1992

(i)      Free Exercise – Freedom of Conscience in Minnesota

In 1992, the Minnesota Supreme Court declared that Minnesota Courts would continue to apply a compelling interest balancing test – rather than adopting the narrower test declared by the United Stated Supreme Court in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990):

Because the Minnesota freedom of conscience clause provides more protection than the Federal Constitution, we will not follow the United States Supreme Court’s limited analysis and will retain the compelling state interest balancing test.

Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d 857, 865 (Minn., 1992).

This test has four prongs:

  • whether the objector’s belief is sincerely held;
  • whether the state regulation burdens the exercise of religious beliefs;
  • whether the state interest in the regulation is overriding or compelling; and
  • whether the state regulation uses the least restrictive means.

 Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d 857, 862 (Minn., 1992), citing Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d at 398; State v. Sports and Health Club, 370 N.W.2d 844, 851 (Minn.1985).

The Supreme Court recently altered its free exercise analysis in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990).

The Smith majority cast aside the previously utilized balancing test in favor of a more narrow analysis.

The balancing test allowed a burden on the exercise of religion only if the state’s interests outweighed the degree of impairment of free exercise rights.

Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d 857, 862 (Minn., 1992), citing Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965 (1963);

see also Bob Jones Univ. v. United States, 461 U.S. 574, 103 S.Ct. 2017, 76 L.Ed.2d 157 (1983); United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 102 S.Ct. 1051, 71 L.Ed.2d 127 (1982); Thomas v. Review Bd., 450 U.S. 707, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981).

 The Smith analysis holds that a generally applicable and otherwise valid regulatory law which was

  • not intended to regulate religious conduct or belief and which
  • incidentally burdens the free exercise of religion

does not violate the free exercise clause of the first amendment.

Hill-Murray, 487 N.W.2d 857, 862 (Minn., 1992), citing Smith, 494 U.S. at 878, 110 S.Ct. at 1599.

The limited analysis test declared by the 1990 Smith decision was superseded by federal legislation in 1993.

(ii)     Establishment Clause in Minnesota

In 1992, the Minnesota Supreme Court identified the test that Minnesota Courts will apply when reviewing establishment clause issues, by providing as follows:

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 – Minnesota Court of Appeals – 1993

In 1993, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed certain limitations on the Courts required by the First Amendment:

Thus, the First Amendment precludes judicial review of claims involving core questions of church discipline and internal governance.”

Schoenhals v. Mains, 504 N.W.2d 233, 235 (Minn. Ct. App. 1993) (citing Black, 471 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991) (citations and punctuation omitted);

see also Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese, 426 U.S. at 717, 721.

Minnesota Church Law – Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993

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 generally applicable law does not target a particular religious practice,
  • it did 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 later limited by the U.S. 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).

Minnesota Church Law – Minnesota Court of Appeals – 1995

(i)      Neutral Methods of Proof in Minnesota

In 1995, the Minnesota Court of Appeals discussed the effect of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993:

Congress, however, passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which restored the compelling interest test to the Free Exercise Clause.

Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 401 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995), citing Pub.L. No. 103-141, 107 Stat. 1488 (1993) (codified as 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb).

If claims involve core issues of ecclesiastical concern, government entanglement prevents judicial review.

Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 399 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995), citing Serbian Orthodox Diocese, 426 U.S. at 721-23, 96 S.Ct. at 2386-87; Minker, 894 F.2d at 1360; Black, 471 N.W.2d at 720.

If the dispute, however, can be resolved on neutral methods of proof, judicial review is permissible.

Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 399 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995), citing Minker, 894 F.2d at 1360; Black, 471 N.W.2d at 720.

(ii)     Minnesota Constitution – Termination of Employment

In 1995, the Minnesota Court of Appeals cited the Hershberger decision, and other authority, when it affirmed the right of a church to terminate a church employee on religious grounds:

The Minnesota Constitution affords greater protection of religious freedom than the United States Constitution.

Geraci v. Eckanar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 398 (Minn. App., 1995), citing State v. Hershberger, 462 N.W.2d 393, 397 (Minn., 1990)

The First Amendment [to the United States Constitution] limits the government from prohibiting the exercise of religion.

Section 16, [of the Minnesota Constitution] however, precludes even

  • an infringement on or
  • an interference with

 religious freedom.

Government actions that do not prohibit religious practices could still violate the Minnesota Constitution if they interfere with those religious practices.

Moreover, the Constitution prohibits the judiciary, as well as the legislature, from violating free exercise rights.”

Geraci v. Eckankar, 526 N.W.2d 391, 398-99 (Minn. Ct. App. 1995) (Citations and punctuation omitted), citing Kreshik v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, 363 U.S. 190, 191, 80 S.Ct. 1037, 1038, 4 L.Ed.2d 1140 (1960).

Minnesota Church Law – Church Property Disputes

A concern for the potential entanglement by the State in religious affairs does not prevent the courts from ever intervening in matters relating to religious organizations.

See, e.g., Odenthal v. Minnesota Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 649 N.W.2d 426, 435 (Minn. 2002).

For example, with respect to disputes over church property, the State of Minnesota has a clear interest.

Protestant Reformed Church of Edgerton v. Tempelman, 81 N.W.2d 839, 847 (Minn. 1957)

(“It is therefore only when civil or property rights of a religious organization form the basis of the relief sought that a civil court can inquire into the ecclesiastical beliefs peculiar to the organization.”);

Watson v. Jones, 443 U.S. at 602

(“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” (citing Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440)).

Nevertheless, even then, judicial inquiries should proceed cautiously, as:

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

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. at 449; Blauert v. Schupmann, 63 N.W.2d 578, 583 (Minn. 1954).

Neutral Principles of Law Analysis – Federal

Constitutional limitations do not require that a 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).

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).

The neutral principles of law analysis 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 – Neutral Principles of Law Analysis

Therefore, 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:

“[t]hough this action is not easily characterized, it would accurately be termed a matter of property ownership and membership qualification. . . .

 Since it is not a doctrinal matter, nor a matter committed to adjudication by the highest tribunal in a hierarchical church, there is no First Amendment barrier to resolution by the civil courts.

                Piletich v. Detertich, 328 N.W.2d 969, 700 (Minn. 1982).

Minnesota Church Law – The Minnesota Court of Appeals – 2011

In a unreported opinion issued in 2011, the Minnesota Court of Appeals was able to avoid unnecessary entanglement claims by applying a neutral principles of law analysis:

Under the entanglement doctrine, a state may not inquire into or review the internal decision making or governance of a religious institution.”

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Odenthal v. Minn. Conference of SeventhDay Adventists, 649 N.W.2d 426, 435 (Minn.2002) ( Odenthal I ).

But if neutral principles of law apply to claims against a clergy member, there is no entanglement problem and a district court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the claims.

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Odenthal v. Minn. Conference of SeventhDay Adventists, 649 N.W.2d 426, 435, 436 (Minn.2002) ( Odenthal I ).

Because the Constitution limits the judiciary’s jurisdiction over disputes involving religious institutions, the entanglement questions raised by the Conference are properly before us.

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Odenthal v. Minn. Conference of SeventhDay Adventists, 649 N.W.2d 426, 435 (“The First Amendment applies to both legislative and judicial power.”).

Although unreported opinions are not legally binding precedent in Minnesota, the Minnesota Court of Appeals succinctly summarized the entanglement issue by reviewing prior decisions:

Under the First Amendment,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing U.S. Const. amend. I.

The First Amendment applies to judicial power.”

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Olson v. First Church of Nazarene, 661 N.W.2d 254, 260 (Minn.App.2003).

“When claims involve ‘core’ questions of church discipline and internal governance, the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the inevitable danger of governmental entanglement precludes judicial review.”

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Black v. Snyder, 471 N.W.2d 715, 720 (Minn.App.1991), review denied (Minn. Aug. 29, 1991).

Yet, the Establishment Clause does not bar all government action.

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Olson, 661 N.W.2d at 260.

No entanglement problem exists when a dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law,

rules and standards that have been developed and are applied without particular regard to religious institutions or doctrines.”

Beach v. Budd, 2011 WL 1642579 Minn App. (2011), citing Odenthal I, 649 N.W.2d at 435.

Conclusion – Minnesota Church Law – State Limits of Judicial Interference

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Article 1, § 16, and Article 1,§ 17 of the Minnesota Constitution, provide certain protections to Minnesotans 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 analysis.

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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Gary C. Dahle – Attorney at Law

2704 County Road 10, Mounds View, MN 55112

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

gary@dahlelaw.com

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