Under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine courts refrain from injecting themselves into issues of internal governance of churches and religious congregations. The doctrine can be raised as a defense and is jurisdictional in nature. Accordingly, it can be asserted in a plea to the jurisdiction.
ECCLESIASTICAL ABSTENTION DOCTRINE
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine arises from the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. See U. S. CONST. amend. I ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."). After the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the limitations on Congress in the First Amendment became equally applicable to state action abridging religious freedom. See Everson v. Bd. of Educ., 330 U.S. 1, 15 (1947). Government action can burden the free exercise of religion in one of two ways: by interfering with an individual's observance or practice of a particular faith, see, e.g., Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 532 (1993), or by encroaching on the church's ability to manage its internal affairs, see, e.g., Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952); see also, Retta v. Mekonen, 338 S.W.3d 72, 76 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2011, no pet.) (citing Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 395) ("The First Amendment prohibits government action, including court action, that would burden the free exercise of religion by encroaching on a church's ability to manage its internal affairs.").
Courts give great deference to the First Amendment's freedom of religion guarantee. See In re Godwin, 293 S.W.3d 742, 745 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2009, orig. proceeding). "The Supreme Court has broadly interpreted the command to `make no law' [respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof] as prohibiting all forms of government action, including both statutory law and court action through civil lawsuits." Turner v. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 18 S.W.3d 877, 890 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2000, pet. denied). The Free Exercise Clause prohibition of government action that burdens the free exercise of religion "by encroaching on the church's ability to manage its internal affairs" precludes civil courts from intruding into inherently "religious" or "ecclesiastical" matters. Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 395, 398-99.
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine stands for the proposition that the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from exercising jurisdiction over matters concerning "theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them." Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 713-14 (1976); see also Patton v. Jones, 212 S.W.3d 541, 547-48 (Tex. App.-Austin 2005, pet. denied) (ecclesiastical abstention doctrine "prevents secular courts from reviewing many types of disputes that would require an analysis of `theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required'") (quoting Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 733 (1872)); Dean v. Alford, 994 S.W.2d 392, 395 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 1999, no pet.) ("It is without dispute that the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from intruding into the church's governance of `religious' or `ecclesiastical' matters, such as theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members to standards of morality."); see also Pleasant Glade Assembly of God v. Schubert, 264 S.W.3d 1, 13 (Tex. 2008) (dismissing case involving ecclesiastical issues for want of jurisdiction).
"The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern." McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553, 558-59 (5th Cir. 1972); see also Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S. Ct. 694, 706 (2012) ("According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions."); Dean, 994 S.W.2d at 395 (issue of a pastor's ouster is ecclesiastical in nature); Tran v. Fiorenza, 934 S.W.2d 740, 743 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 1996, no writ) (relationships between organized church and its ministers is church's lifeblood). "[C]ourts should not involve themselves in matters relating to the hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of clergy." Lacy v. Bassett, 132 S.W.3d 119, 123 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2004, no pet.).
To determine whether the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies or, conversely, whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists, "courts must look to the `substance and effect of a plaintiff's complaint to determine its ecclesiastical implication, not its emblemata.'" Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 405 (quoting Tran, 934 S.W.2d at 743). Courts applying the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine "have consistently held that civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to decide [a case involving an employment decision by a religious institution] if the employment decision concerns a member of the clergy or an employee in a ministerial position." Patton, 212 S.W.3d at 547; see e.g., Green v. United Pentecostal Church Int'l, 899 S.W.2d 28, 30 (Tex. App.-Austin 1995, writ denied). Even though the elements of a common law tort such as defamation, "may be defined by secular principles without regard to religion, it does not necessarily follow that application of those principles to impose civil tort liability would not run afoul of protections the constitution affords to a church's right to construe and administer church doctrine." Schubert, 264 S.W.3d at 10 (emphasis in original) (citing Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 400); see also Patton, 212 S.W.3d at 553 ("Under most circumstances, defamation is one of those common law claims that is not compelling enough to overcome First Amendment protection surrounding a church's choice of pastoral leader. When a defamation claim arises entirely out of a church's relationship with its pastor, the claim is almost always deemed to be beyond the reach of civil courts because resolution of the claim would require an impermissible inquiry into the church's bases for its action.") (quoting Heard v. Johnson, 810 A.2d 871, 875 (D.C. App. 2002)).
The Texas Supreme Court has applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to tort claims brought by a church member against other church members who were not in authority positions. See Schubert, 264 S.W.3d at 12 (holding court lacked jurisdiction to consider church member's assault claims against other church members). The supreme court has also applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in the context of a claim brought by a church member against her counselor and pastor for statements made in connection with the church's ecclesiastical disciplinary process. Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d 389. In Westbrook, Peggy Penley sued CrossLand Community Bible Church (Crossland), a secular professional counselor who also served as the pastor of CrossLand (Westbrook), and the church elders for defamation, negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and intentional inflection of emotional distress. Penley asserted in her lawsuit that during a secular counseling session with Westbrook, she disclosed marital infidelity, and that Westbrook and church elders subsequently published information concerning her actions to the church's membership. In response to Penley's claims, Westbrook filed a plea challenging the court's jurisdiction, contending the suit involved an ecclesiastical dispute concerning a church disciplinary matter. Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 394. The church and the elders filed a similar motion to dismiss. The trial court granted the defendants' motions and dismissed the case. Penley pursued only her appeal of Westbrook's dismissal. Id. at 394. The publication about which Penley complained was made in the course of the church disciplinary process and communicated by Westbrook pursuant to the requirements of that process. Id. at 402. The supreme court stated that even though Penley's suit was "now against Westbrook and no longer the church," it is well-settled that the "interaction between the church and its pastor is an integral part of church government" and "the relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood." Id. (quoting Simpson v. Wells Lamont Corp., 494 F.2d 490, 493 (5th Cir. 1974) and McClure, 460 F.2d at 558). The supreme court held it was clear from Penley's pleading that Penley's professional negligence claim against Westbrook unconstitutionally impinged upon internal matters of church governance in violation of the First Amendment and the trial court properly dismissed Penley's case against Westbrook. Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 405.
In Williams v. Gleason, 26 S.W.3d 54 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2000, pet. denied), a dispute arose in connection with a disciplinary action brought by the church's elders against the Williamses. Id. at 54. The Williamses sued the elders of the church for libel, slander, and tortious interference with business and/or occupations, among other things. The Williamses alleged they were libeled by statements contained in an instrument through which church disciplinary charges were made against them. Although the Williamses contended their claims arose in tort, the court of appeals concluded that each claim implicated an ecclesiastical matter—the Williamses' subjection to the church's discipline. 26 S.W.3d at 59. The court of appeals stated:
Instead of suing the church for its disciplinary actions, which would have provided the church with ecclesiastical immunity, the Williamses sued members of the church conducting their disciplinary trial and appeal. Ecclesiastical immunity would be an empty protection if a disgruntled member, denied the chance to sue the religious body, 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.
SOURCE: DALLAS COURT OF APPEALS - No. 05-11-01253-CV – 1/28/2013