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BURGESS v. ROCK CREEK BAPTIST CHURCH

March 30, 1990

ELIZABETH J. BURGESS, Plaintiff,
v.
ROCK CREEK BAPTIST CHURCH, et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: RICHEY

 CHARLES R. RICHEY, UNITED STATE DISTRICT JUDGE

 Before the Court is "what the courts have recognized as the most intractable of disputes -- a church fight." First Baptist Church v. Ohio, 591 F. Supp. 676, 680-81 (S.D. Ohio 1983). The central issue in this lawsuit by a "lifelong" Rock Creek Baptist Church ("RCB Church") member against RCB Church (as well as its Pastor and its Secretary) is whether the plaintiff is a member of RCB Church. In response to the defendants' decision to terminate her membership, the plaintiff sued for declaratory and injunctive relief (to establish that she is an RCB Church member in good standing) and for damages for the defendants' alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress in terminating her membership and treating her as a non-member. The Court will grant summary judgment for the defendants, *fn1" because the First Amendment to the Constitution precludes civil courts from adjudicating disputes involving matters of ecclesiastical cognizance.

 I. Factual Background

 Before this lawsuit commenced, the plaintiff had been an RCB Church member for about forty years. During that period she served in various capacities and participated extensively in RCB Church activities. In 1984 the RCB Church minister departed, and the plaintiff and several other RCB Church members assisted him in becoming established in a new church. RCB Church's new Pastor and the Secretary construed the plaintiff's actions in assisting the former minister as a resignation of her membership and decided to transfer her membership to the new church. However, the plaintiff maintains that she was merely helping a friend and neither intended to resign from RCB Church nor requested a transfer to another church.

 In any event, resolving this factual dispute in the plaintiff's favor for the purposes of this motion, the defendants terminated the plaintiff's RCB Church membership against her will. Having terminated her membership, the defendants treated the plaintiff as a non-member, refusing to allow her to vote in church elections, seeking to bar her from attending church meetings, and refusing to accept her dues payment as anything other than a public non-membership donation. In response to inquiries about her membership status, the RCB Church Pastor sent the plaintiff a letter dated November 25, 1986 listing four ways for the plaintiff to regain her membership. However, the record indicates that the plaintiff has not pursued any of these options.

 RCB Church, a congregational church, is a District of Columbia corporation, and the other two defendants are District of Columbia residents. The plaintiff, a Maryland resident, invokes this Court's diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1332(a)(1).

 II. Analysis

 A consequence of this Nation's fundamental belief in the separation of church and state is that, under most circumstances, the First and Fourteenth Amendments preclude civil courts from adjudicating church fights that require extensive inquiry into matters of "ecclesiastical cognizance." See Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 708-11, 49 L. Ed. 2d 151, 96 S. Ct. 2372 (1976). *fn2" A civil court presiding over church disputes must be particularly careful not to violate the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses by ruling against one party and for the other party based on the court's resolution of the underlying controversy over religious doctrine and practice. See Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem. Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658, 89 S. Ct. 601 (1969).

  Although every lawsuit in which a church is a party involves ecclesiastical matters to some degree, under certain narrow circumstances it is appropriate for a court to adjudicate a church fight. First, a court may decide such a dispute if it can do so without becoming unduly entangled in matters of ecclesiastical cognizance. As the Supreme Court has made clear, "even when rival church factions seek resolution of a church property dispute in the civil courts there is substantial danger that the State will become entangled in essentially religious controversies or intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrinal beliefs." Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 709; see Crowder v. Southern Baptist Convention, 828 F.2d 718, 722 (11th Cir. 1987) (footnote omitted) ("where the method of resolution of the controversy avoids excessively entangling the judiciary in questions of ecclesiastical doctrine or belief, the first amendment might permit a court to adjudicate the matter"), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1066, 98 L. Ed. 2d 992, 108 S. Ct. 1028 (1988). Moreover, the First Amendment "commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. at 449. This principle is particularly relevant to the instant case because it governs not only church fights over property but " applies with equal force to church disputes over church polity and church administration." Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 710 (emphasis added).

 A natural outgrowth of these non-entanglement concerns is the so-called "neutral principles" doctrine. In Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 604, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775, 99 S. Ct. 3020 (1979), the Supreme Court held that "a State is constitutionally entitled to adopt neutral principles of law as a means of adjudicating a church property dispute." The Wolf Court noted that the primary advantages of this approach "are that it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organization and polity," adding that this "method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges." Id. at 603. However, in this case involving the plaintiff's entitlement to continued church membership, her reliance on the neutral principles doctrine is misplaced. As the Wolf Court's language quoted above demonstrates, this approach applies only to church property disputes. See also Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. at 449 ("there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without 'establishing' churches to which property is awarded"); Hutchison v. Thomas, 789 F.2d 392, 396 (6th Cir.) ("The 'neutral principles' doctrine has never been extended to religious controversies in the areas of church government, order and discipline, nor should it be."), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 885, 93 L. Ed. 2d 253, 107 S. Ct. 277 (1986). Thus, this Court may not utilize the neutral principles doctrine to resolve this membership dispute.

 Another narrow circumstance in which at least "marginal civil court review" of a church dispute might be appropriate is if the decision of a proper church tribunal is the product of fraud or collusion. See, e.g., Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 712 (citing Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 16, 74 L. Ed. 131, 50 S. Ct. 5 (1929) (dictum)); Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. at 447 (same). *fn3" However, assuming without deciding that a fraud or collusion exception exists, it is inapposite here because even a liberal reading of the plaintiff's Amended Complaint does not reveal allegations of fraud or collusion against the defendants.

 In addition to fraud and collusion, the Gonzalez dictum included arbitrariness as an exception to the judiciary's "hands off" policy in cases involving matters of ecclesiastical cognizance. See Gonzalez, 280 U.S. at 16. However, in 1976 the Supreme Court, while not foreclosing civil court review "under the narrow rubrics of 'fraud' or 'collusion,'" specifically overruled this arbitrariness prong of the exception. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 713; see Kaufmann v. Sheehan, 707 F.2d 355, 358 (8th Cir. 1983). Holding that "recognition of . . . an [arbitrariness] exception would undermine the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry," Milivojevich, 426 U.S. at 713, the Court noted:

 
Indeed, it is the essence of religious faith that ecclesiastical decisions are reached and are to be accepted as matters of faith whether or not rational or measurable by objective criteria. Constitutional concepts of due process, involving secular notions of 'fundamental fairness' or impermissible ...

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