Recently a church client was sued by a congregant for a perceived wrong that occurred during the course of a worship service. A constitutional challenge to the court’s exercise of jurisdiction over the church was raised in which we asserted the church’s First Amendment right to freely exercise its faith precluded the trial court from exercising its authority over the church. Ultimately the court concurred that it had no jurisdiction over the congregant’s claims. The constitutions of the United States and of Texas broadly protect the free exercise of religion. The scope of that protection is often implicated when a religious body is involved in litigation, but precisely what is beyond judicial inquiry? For what acts may a religious body be held answerable in a civil action, if anything?
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine has been crafted by the courts to guide this inquiry. This doctrine prevents courts from reviewing disputes that implicate analyses of theological doctrine or controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to particular moral standards. Civil courts are precluded from venturing into such arenas. Courts have recognized that the preservation of the right to freely exercise one’s faith is deemed to be of such import that it overshadows those inequities which may result from its liberal application. Simply, not every wrong may have a remedy at law when a religious body is involved.
While extremely broad protections are granted to a religious entity the free exercise clauses of the federal and Texas constitutions do not immunize those entities from all tort causes of action. Within the context of an individual claim the particular facts and circumstances out of which the claim arises are of paramount importance and will be carefully scrutinized by a court to ensure that the court does not get entangled in a religious dispute. It is not enough, however, for a claimant to merely be able to state the elements of a cause of action in secular terms. The foundational bases for the pled causes of action must not touch upon those forbidden areas. Claims which necessitate delving into the truth or falsity of beliefs, matters or practice, doctrinal disputes, or internal governance issues, all take a court to a place where it has no jurisdiction.
Context is critical. Tort claims touching on beliefs or governance are typically beyond the reach of a civil court while those with secure footing on secular bases – and which do not touch such core issues – may well be subject to adjudication by a civil court.