Church autonomy in matters of faith and doctrine is a long-established rule of judicial restraint, developed as a construction of the First Amendment’s religion clauses. These clauses prohibit establishment of religion and protect the free exercise of religion from government intervention or interference. When the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals applied this body of law, in deciding the recent case of Skrzypczak v. Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, it was following a long line of precedents at least 140 years old.
A good summary of this history is provided in the Tenth Circuit case, Bryce v. St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church. Plaintiffs Lee Ann Bryce and Reverend Sara Smith brought a sexual harassment suit against St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church and others, for remarks made about homosexuals and about the plaintiffs’ homosexual activities. Because the remarks were made during a discussion within the church about the church’s doctrine and employment of a minister, both the federal district court and the appeals court dismissed the lawsuit.
The district court ruled that courts have “essentially no role in determining ecclesiastical questions, or religious doctrine and practice.” The appeals court wrote that “The plaintiffs ask this court to insert itself into a theological discussion about the church’s doctrine and policy towards homosexuals – one of the most important ongoing dialogues in many churches today. We decline to do so.”
The long line of cases establishing church autonomy is commonly traced to the 1871 ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 20 L.Ed. 666 (1871). The dispute between two factions within a Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky concerned control of church property. The court set forth as well established that “where the right of property in the civil court is dependent on the question of doctrine, discipline, ecclesiastical law, rule, or custom, or church government, and that has been decided by the highest tribunal within the organization to which it has been carried, the civil court will accept that decision as conclusive, and be governed by it in its application to the case before it.”
If a church has a congregational form of government, that means the courts will accept and enforce the decision of a majority of the congregation. If the church has some form of presbyterian government, with elected elders, and synod and national leadership, or ecclesiastical government (rule by bishops, elected or appointed), then the decision of the highest church body is final.
This stands in marked contrast to British law, where a court is required to inquire and decide for itself “what is the true standard of faith in the church organization and which of the contending parties before the court holds to this standard.” British common law has been relied upon by American courts since the War of Independence, as colonial and state courts were already based on it. However, specific provisions of the federal and state constitutions set aside some points of law, replacing them with new, revolutionary, principles. The separation of church and state was one of those changes.
Decisions regarding disputes within the Russian Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church, restrained state legislatures from dictating by statute who should control a cathedral, and affirmed that the church autonomy doctrine restrained the judiciary from hearing law suits challenging personnel decisions concerning appointments to ministry positions within any church.
Decisions made between 1972 and 1995 recognized a ministerial exception to enforcement of civil rights laws, “for perpetuation of a church’s existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and to the world at large.” (Rayburn v. General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.)
The constitution is primarily a jurisdictional document. It does not dictate what policies are wise or beneficial. It delegates certain matters to the federal congress, which may pass laws on those matters for better or worse. The constitution enumerates the powers of the president, and restrains both federal and state governments (in different ways) from exercising any jurisdiction over other matters. The Fourth Circuit found in the Rayburn case that “state scrutiny of the church’s choice would infringe substantially on the church’s free exercise of religion and would constitute impermissible government entanglement with church authority.”