Church Autonomy and Ecclesiastical Abstention

Connecticut court says the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevents it from deciding whether a religious organization is liable for not conducting a mental fitness evaluation.

Not everything a church does to a pastor is outside the reach of the court. That is a recent lesson church officials learned in a case out of Ohio federal court dealing with the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Also known as the church autonomy doctrine, this is the principle that civil courts will stay out of the doctrinal and important decisions a church makes, such as the decision to fire a pastor or remove a parishioner from membership. This case, Barrow v. Living Word Church, et al.,1 is an interesting twist on the doctrine, and serves as a word of caution for churches.

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.