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Church Autonomy (Ecclesiastical Abstention) is Still Alive and Well in Texas

When someone brings their church to court in Texas there are two things the court is likely to do. The court may refuse to hear the case because it would require getting into church doctrine or issues that are reserved to the church’s decision-making (“church autonomy” or “ecclesiastical abstention”). Or, the court could hear the case just like any other civil action because the court can decide the case using “neutral principles of law.” These are the principles of law that control the case when doctrine is not critical.

In 2013, the Texas Supreme Court handed down the Masterson case, which strongly suggested that the bulk of disputes involving churches should be decided based on neutral principles of law. Somewhat to the dismay of church law scholars, the Court stated that Texas courts are required to apply neutral principles to decide issues such as “land titles, trusts, and corporate formation, governance, and dissolution, even when religious entities are involved.”1

Masterson’s mandate let people argue that issues that courts previously avoided because of ecclesiastical abstention are now fair game for litigation. But a recent case by an appellate court in Texas clarifies that Masterson has limits.

The case, Mouton v. Christian Faith Missionary Baptist Church, No. 01-15-00088-CV (Tex. App. May 24, 2016), involved a dispute over authority and control of a church after the church’s senior pastor passed away. The challenging faction organized a pulpit committee (the method for finding a new pastor under the church’s by-laws) and elected one of its members as pastor. The apparent majority in the church disagreed with this selection. Ultimately, the majority voted to undo the pulpit committee and expel the challenging faction from church membership.

The dispute made its way to court. Among other things, the challengers asked the court to declare that the church, its current pastor and a few others, had violated the church’s by-laws by interfering with the pulpit committee and later expelling them from the church. The church filed a plea to the jurisdiction challenging the court’s ability to decide these issues. The trial court agreed with the church, granted the plea to the jurisdiction, and dismissed the case. The challengers appealed.

On appeal, the challengers argued that the court should hear the case under neutral principles of law because resolution of the issues depended on provisions of the church’s corporate documents. They argued that Masterson had substantially altered the church law landscape in Texas. Because the process of choosing a pastor was laid out in corporate documents, the court could decide the issue under neutral principles of law.

In an opinion that upholds the right of religious organizations to self-govern, the appellate court rejected such an expansive reading of Masterson. It made clear that Masterson did not alter the long-recognized principle that civil courts must not interfere with the free exercise of religion by deciding claims that are intertwined with inherently ecclesiastical issues. Here, the simple fact that the pastoral selection process was described in the church’s by-laws did not make the case reviewable on neutral principles. This was because the case also involved the issue of selection of a pastor and excommunication of church members—issues that have consistently been off-limits for civil courts. In sum, even if the issue involves something that appears purely secular (a question over a church’s corporate documents), where that issue cannot be decided without interfering in ecclesiastical matters (pastoral selection and church discipline), the court should not hear the case.

The Mouton case reaffirms the application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in the post-Masterson context. It also makes evident that selection of a pastor is not simply a matter of selecting a corporate officer. A quote from the case sums up the importance of this distinction and why civil courts should continue to uphold it:

[T]he relationships between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood and the minister is the primary agent by which a church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Thus, courts may not attempt to right wrongs related to the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of clergy, because while such wrongs may exist and be severe, and although the administration of the church may be inadequate to provide a remedy, the preservation of the free exercise of religion is deemed so important a principle it overshadows the inequities which may result from its liberal application.2

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1Masterson v. Diocese of Nw. Tex., 422 S.W.3d 594, 606 (Tex. 2013).
2Mouton v. Christian Faith Missionary Baptist Church, No. 01-15-00088-CV (Tex. App. May 24, 2016) (internal citations and quotations omitted).
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