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.
The approach to disputes involving churches that the Court developed in early cases such as Watson v. Jones largely still holds sway.1 The Supreme Court described the prevailing doctrine in 1969:
[T]here are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all . . . 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.2
On “issues of religious doctrine or polity,” civil courts must defer to “the highest court of a hierarchical church organization.” 3 Thus, in Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, the Supreme Court held that a state erred in awarding church property to local churches, because its decision was based on a judgment that their mother church had “departed from the tenets of faith and practice it held at the time the local churches affiliated with it.” 4 The state court had violated the First Amendment by “determin[ing] matters at the very core of a religion—the interpretation of particular church doctrines and the importance of those doctrines to the religion.” 5 This stood in contrast to prior cases where courts had permissibly deferred to and enforced the decisions of the church itself on religious issues.6
Decades earlier, in Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, the Supreme Court had indicated that courts may have some role in reviewing ecclesiastical disputes.7 The Gonzalez Court declined to enforce a will that purported to appoint someone as a Catholic chaplain, where the Archbishop had concluded that the person was not qualified to serve under religious law.8 The Court said that because the chaplain’s appointment was “a canonical act, it is the function of the church authorities to determine what the essential qualifications of a chaplain are and whether the candidate possesses them.” 9 However, although the Court ultimately deferred to the decision of the church authority, its opinion suggested that courts could conduct a limited review of churches’ decisions on ecclesiastical matters to determine whether there was “fraud, collusion, or arbitrariness.” 10
It is not clear, however, whether the mode of analysis outlined in Gonzalez is still viable. Decades later, in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, the Supreme Court concluded that a state court violated the First Amendment when it impermissibly inquired “into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance and polity.” 11 The Court held that Gonzalez's arbitrariness inquiry was unconstitutional to the extent that it allowed courts to inquire “whether the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations.” 12 Instead, the Court confirmed that the First Amendment requires civil courts “to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” 13 Accordingly, the Court held that the state court should not have disturbed the Serbian Orthodox Church’s decisions to defrock the bishop of its American-Canadian Diocese and to split up the diocese.14
By contrast, the Supreme Court has held that courts acted constitutionally when they resolved disputes between religious entities without inquiring into religious doctrine.15 Jones v. Wolf approved a state decision that applied “neutral principles of law” to resolve a property dispute between a local church and its national body.16 The Supreme Court said the state was not required to defer to the decision of the higher church authority where the dispute involved no “doctrinal controversy.” 17 The Court explained that in order to resolve a property dispute, it would be permissible for the state court to apply the “ordinary presumption that . . . a voluntary religious association is represented by a majority of its members.” 18 However, the Court cautioned that to the extent “the neutral-principles method . . . requires a civil court to examine certain religious documents, . . . . a civil court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms.” 19 In cases where interpreting “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.” 20
- See Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 714 (1871).
- Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem’l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969).
- Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602 (1979).
- Presbyterian Church in the U.S., 393 U.S. at 441, 444.
- Id. at 450.
- See id. at 450–51 (contrasting the decision with Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 16 (1929)).
- Gonzalez, 280 U.S. at 16–17.
- See id. at 13–14.
- Id. at 16. In the case before it, the Court concluded that the Archbishop followed “the controlling Canon Law” and did not act “arbitrarily,” and accordingly accepted his decision as controlling. Id. at 18.
- Id. at 16.
- 426 U.S. 696, 698 (1976).
- Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 713.
- See id. at 717–21.
- E.g., Md. & Va. Eldership of Churches of God v. Church of God, Inc., 396 U.S. 367, 367–68 (1970) (per curiam) (resolving a “church property dispute” by relying “upon language in the deeds conveying the properties in question to the local church corporations, upon the terms of the charters of the corporations, and upon provisions in the constitution of the General Eldership pertinent to the ownership and control of church property” ).
- Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 604 (1979) ( “[A] State is constitutionally entitled to adopt neutral principles of law as a means of adjudicating a church property dispute.” ).
- Id. at 605 ( “We cannot agree . . . that the First Amendment requires the States to adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authority in resolving church property disputes, even where no issue of doctrinal controversy is involved.” ).
- Id. at 607. The state argued that its courts had applied this presumption; the Supreme Court agreed that such a rule of decision “would be consistent with both the neutral-principles analysis and the First Amendment,” but held that it was not clear whether the court had in fact followed this approach or whether this was the approach required by state law. Id. at 607–09. Accordingly, the Court vacated and remanded the judgment for further proceedings. Id. at 610. See also Bouldin v. Alexander, 82 U.S. (15 Wall) 131, 137, 139–40 (1872) (resolving question as to “the legally constituted trustees of the church” by looking to the terms of the deed, and noting that although the Court could not review church decisions about “who ought to be members,” the actions of a minority of members to excommunicate the trustees were “not the action of the church” and were inoperative for determining trusteeship).
- Wolf, 443 U.S. at 604.