Just like other organizations, churches can sue and be sued. Much of the time religious doctrine is not relevant to the dispute, such as when a contractor does a shoddy job building the sanctuary, when the church’s neighbor contests a boundary, or when the church’s van gets into a collision. But sometimes disputes can hinge on, or at least involve, the organization’s beliefs, principles, creeds, or canons. Usually that happens in internal disagreements—actions among the church and its members, officers, directors, or leaders; or between an individual assembly and the larger organizing body. In such cases, the authority of secular courts to decide the outcome is sharply limited by the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Analyzing a church’s internal property dispute, the U.S. Supreme Court stated decades ago that
[F]irst 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. If civil courts undertake to resolve such controversies in order to adjudicate the property dispute, the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern.
Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem’l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969).
When such conflicts arise in North Carolina civil actions, our courts must ask the following: May the court resolve the dispute using only neutral principles of law? If so, the First Amendment does not prohibit the court from exercising jurisdiction. If, instead, deciding the issue would entangle the court in ecclesiastical matters, the court must decline to intervene. See Harris v. Matthews, 361 N.C. 265, 274 (2007). “The dispositive question is whether resolution of the legal claim requires the court to determine or weigh church doctrine.” Smith v. Privette, 128 N.C. App. 490, 494 (1998).
North Carolina’s appellate courts have not, of course, had the opportunity to subject every type of internal church dispute to this test. But there are plenty of examples of how it applies—many quite recent—and these are some of the key conclusions: Continue Reading