Third Circuit Supports Church Autonomy


The doctrine of church autonomy, which defines broad areas where civil courts cannot interfere with church decisions, plays an important part in First Amendment free exercise rights. On June 28, 2012, the Third Circuit issued a precedential opinion, Askew v. The Trustees of the General Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc., supporting this doctrine.

The facts arose out of a long-drawn-out internal schism in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith. Some time ago, a dissident group left the church, after a massive legal quarrel about who was the rightful General Overseer of the church. Joseph Askew, the plaintiff, was a member of the dissident faction. In 2009, he filed a complaint alleging, among other claims, that the Bishop and trustees had misappropriated church assets for their own personal use.

The church defendants moved to dismiss on the basis that Askew lacked standing to assert the claims because he was not a member of the church. The district court denied the motion to dismiss, but ordered the parties to engage in discovery on the issue of whether Askew was a member. The Bishop of the church declared that Askew was not a member because he, along with the other members of the dissident faction, had been excommunicated sometime before. 

Under First Amendment doctrine, courts will not review doctrinal issues.  Courts accept decisions of the highest religious decision-maker as binding in these areas, as long as there appears to be no fraud. Courts may not review doctrinal matters because that inhibits free exercise of religion. Civil courts may employ neutral principles of law to decide church-related issues that do not have doctrinal implications. 

In this case, the district court decided that Askew lacked standing on the basis that he was not a member of the church, and dismissed the case. The Third Circuit agreed that membership status and whether someone can be, or has been, excommunicated, is exactly the kind of matter that a civil court cannot review. Church membership is not controlled by neutral principles of law, but purely by doctrine. The Third Circuit accepted the bishop’s decision as conclusive and agreed that the district court had correctly dismissed the case.

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