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Amdt1.2.3.1 Overview

First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Taken together, the Religion Clauses create a separation between church and state.1 The preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, outlined the Founder’s view of the separate spheres of authority: “the civil magistrate” should not interfere with religious belief, but should be able “to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” 2

Under a doctrine sometimes called “religious autonomy” 3 or “ecclesiastical abstention,” 4 the Supreme Court has long held that these principles require civil courts to refrain from adjudicating ecclesiastical disputes.5 Nonetheless, so long as they avoid “determining ecclesiastical questions,” civil courts can resolve disputes between religious parties by applying “neutral principles of law.” 6

For example, churches may sometimes split into factions after disagreeing about religious doctrine, and those factions may then further dispute which group is entitled to possess church property.7 The Supreme Court has said that religious organizations are subject to the same legal protections and constraints as “other voluntary associations” and may come to court for adjudication of their property rights.8 However, in the course of adjudicating such a property dispute, the courts must refrain from resolving any “underlying controversies over religious doctrine,” and may only apply “neutral principles” of property law.9 Accordingly, the government may not resolve such disputes by evaluating which faction’s beliefs more faithfully reflect the religious order’s beliefs.10 By contrast, if a deed or other legal document expressly indicates which group is entitled to the property, a court may enforce that legal instrument,11 so long as it “defer[s] to the [religious body’s] resolution” of any religious issues.12

See, e.g., Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145, 164 (1878) (quoting Letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Ass’n (Jan. 1, 1802), back
Id. at 163 (quoting Va. Code Ann. § 57-1) (internal quotation mark omitted). back
See, e.g., Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Juan v. Feliciano, No. 18-921, slip op. at 4 (U.S. Feb. 24, 2020) (per curiam). This case involved a claim that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court should have abstained from resolving an allegedly ecclesiastical dispute, but the U.S. Supreme Court instead resolved the case on jurisdictional grounds. Id. at 4–5 back
See, e.g., Puri v. Khalsa, 844 F.3d 1152, 1162 (9th Cir. 2017); Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., 901 N.W.2d 566, 573 (Mich. 2017); St. Joseph Catholic Orphan Soc’y v. Edwards, 449 S.W.3d 727, 738 (Ky. 2014). back
Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 731 (1871). See also United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 86–88 (1944) (holding, in the context of a criminal prosecution for mail fraud, that the court would have violated the First Amendment if it submitted the truth of the defendants’ religious beliefs to the jury). back
Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem’l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 447, 449 (1969). back
See, e.g., id. at 441–42; Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 597 (1979). back
Watson, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) at 714; see also Wolf, 443 U.S. at 603–04 (noting that by relying on ordinary legal documents like trusts, religious organizations can order their private affairs to “ensure that a dispute over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires of the members” ). back
Presbyterian Church in the U.S., 393 U.S. at 449. back
Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94, 117–19 (1952). back
See Watson, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) at 722–23; Wolf, 443 U.S. at 606. back
Wolf, 443 U.S. at 604. back