The Supreme Court has been warned that the American judiciary is getting way too close to imposing government requirements on churches.
The warning comes in a case over the control of properties used by Episcopal churches in Texas. Lower courts have tried to second-guess church decisions “on inherently religious matters” by applying their claimed “neutral principles” to decisions.
The Rutherford Institute argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that such rulings violate the First Amendment’s prohibition on government interference.
The Texas Supreme Court has sought to apply “neutral principles” in a fight over the national Episcopal Church’s organization and several breakaway groups that have been using local facilities.
“The Constitution establishes a neutral playing field for all viewpoints and requires the government to remain equally impartial and not favor or disfavor one religion over another, or favor or disfavor religion over non-religion,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and author of “Battlefield America: The War on the American People.”
“When it comes to matters involving church doctrine, church governance and the internal workings of religious institutions, however, the government needs to stay clear of that wall of separation between church and state, and resist the urge to meddle altogether.”
The institute explained that the national organization asserts control over 100 local groups and demands they follow the authority of the general church.
After a 1979 Supreme Court ruling that state courts are allowed to apply “neutral principles” of law in resolving property disputes involving churches, the national group “amended its canons to make clear that all property held by Episcopal Church entities is held in trust and for the general church,” the institute explained.
When doctrinal disputes arose in the 2000s, a diocese in Fort Worth and a parish in San Angelo broke away and amended their articles of incorporation to take control of local church property.
The national organization sued.
According to the Rutherford Institute, which has filed friend-of-the-court arguments in the disputes, “a trial court in each case found that Texas law requires deference to the decision of the Episcopal Church that church property belonged to the factions loyal to the church.”
But the Texas Supreme Court ordered the lower courts to apply “neutral principles” of law to resolve the property disputes and reversed the decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court initially refused to hear the case, which was returned to state courts.
So institute lawyers now are arguing that allowing a secular court to decide such issues, without deference to church authorities, is effectively replacing church governance with state or federal decisions.
Rutherford’s filing explains the courts are being told to decide “who is the true church,” a national organization or a local congregation.
“There is no adequate ‘neutral’ or secular way to resolve that question. In most cases, the answer will turn on the meaning of church documents – including constitutions, canons, and deeds to church property. Those documents are necessarily imbued with religious significance. In hierarchical church organizations, church authorities must have final say over what they mean.
“Church property disputes, are inherently matters of church government because they often turn on who the church considers to be the rightful possessor of church property. It is difficult to imagine a more important question to communities of faith,” the filing argues.
“Houses of worship provide a space for adherents to receive ministry, exchange ideas, develop their convictions, and engage in charitable works—all of which are critical to their exercise of religion. It is no surprise, then, that religious spaces are revered by adherents, and are themselves imbued with deep religious or spiritual significance. Indeed, the issue is even more fundamental than that because church property disputes typically are not only about the ownership of the building, but control of the pulpit as well,” it continued.
How then do courts apply their decisions to such disputes, the filing asks.
“No matter how courts try to engage in a secular analysis, by picking the winners and losers—sometimes at odds with the decision of the church itself—the state courts have effectively become parties to these conflicts. These types of conflicts—where the likelihood of entanglement is high—are precisely the sorts of controversies that this court has always placed in the hands of church organizations, and not in secular courts.”
Such disputes over ownership of church properties are becoming more common amid the divide over homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
The issue is nearly non-existent among denominations in which local congregations own and operate their own facilities.