Thursday, September 08, 2011

US Courts Have "No Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction"

Increasingly, our public life is becoming more and more hostile toward Christians and Christian engagement in the public sphere. But such hostility toward the church and juridical interference with church polity and practice has never been the norm in the USA. The following quotes from earlier courts makes this clear. Pray that such understandings would not become a thing of the past. Source: Kairos Journal

“No Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction”—The U.S. Courts on Church Discipline

A number of churches have recently found themselves on trial for the practice of biblical church discipline, which some courts in the last few years have found is a violation of the rights of the person disciplined. If that is the direction American jurisprudence takes, it will be a new one. Throughout the history of the American republic, civil courts have denied that they have any jurisdiction over ecclesial decisions of local churches. Here is a small collection of opinions on the matter handed down by America’s judges over the past 150 years.

This Court, having no ecclesiastical jurisdiction, cannot revise or question ordinary acts of church discipline or excision . . . We cannot decide who ought to be members of the church, nor whether the excommunicated have been justly or unjustly, regularly or irregularly cut off from the body of the church.

We must take the fact of expulsion as conclusive proof that the persons expelled are not now members of the repudiating church; for, whether right or wrong, the act of excommunication must, as to the fact of membership, be law to this Court.1

— Chief Justice George Robertson, Court of Appeals of Kentucky, 1842

The right to organize voluntary religious associations . . . and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association . . . is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. 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 . . .

The judicial eye cannot penetrate the veil of the church for the forbidden purpose of vindicating the alleged wrongs of excised members; when they became members they did so upon the condition of continuing or not as they and their churches might determine, and they thereby submit to the ecclesiastical power and cannot now invoke the supervisory power of the civil tribunals.2

— Justice Samuel Miller, Supreme Court of the United States, 1871

Civil Courts deal only with civil and property rights. They have in this country no ecclesiastical jurisdiction . . . [H]ere we have a fact to be dealt with—the fact that this church, sitting as a court, has determined for itself that it had the power and the right to exclude these complainants. They have, as a judicature, adjudged that they had the jurisdiction, and that the usage and law of the church did not demand other trial or notice than such as attended the public action of the church. The law of the church provides for no appeal to a higher tribunal. They may have erred in their procedure. It is not for a civil Court to revise their action in a matter so vital to their freedom as a church.3

— Justice Horace Lurton, Supreme Court of Tennessee, 1891

It seems to be settled law in this land of religious liberty that the civil courts have no power or jurisdiction to determine the regularity or validity of the judgment of a church tribunal expelling a member from further communion and fellowship in the church.4

— Judge C. J. Pleasants, Court of Appeals of Texas, 1927

Ecclesiastical immunity would be an empty protection if a disgruntled member, denied the chance to sue the religious body [because of the First Amendment], sued instead the members of the religious body who disciplined him. If disciplined members were able to sue the members of the church, as opposed to the church itself, there would be an inappropriate chilling effect on the ability of churches to discipline their members.5

— Justice Joe L. Draughn, Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District, 2000

The principal question in this appeal is whether we have subject matter jurisdiction to decide an ecclesiastical dispute. We find we do not.6

— Justice Joe L. Draughn, Court of Appeals of Texas, Fourteenth District, 2000


Shannon v. Frost, 42 Ky. 253 (1842)


Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 728-29 (1871)


Nance v. Busby, 91 Tenn. 303; 18 S.W. 874 (1891)


Minton v. Leavell, 297 S.W. 615 (1927)


Williams v. Gleason, 26 S.W.3d 54 (2000)



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