Thou Shalt Not Sue: The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine in Tennessee

by Butler Snow LLP
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Like most commercial litigators, I do not often find myself dealing with questions of religion or divine providence during work hours. However, that is exactly where I found myself last Easter (ironically enough), working through the night to defend a temporary injunction hearing that sought to remove our client, a Tennessee pastor, from his position in the church. We defeated the temporary injunction and ultimately won on a motion to dismiss using what can only be described as a judicially-created 11th Commandment- Thou Shalt Not Sue Thy Pastor.

It is well-settled in Tennessee that “civil courts have no jurisdiction over inner-ecclesiastical matters of the church.”[1] This lack of jurisdiction comes from the Tennessee Constitution’s state analogs to the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. Specifically, courts cannot adjudicate disputes concerning religious “policy and administration,” nor can they change the “religious doctrine and practice” of a religious institution.[2] For the purposes of our case, this turned out to be an easy rule to apply because the Tennessee Supreme Court had already recognized that the “removal of a pastor” was something the “tribunals of the church have exclusive authority…without interference from the civil courts.”[3]

Like many things in both religion and law, however, this rule has been interpreted different ways by different individuals. Some courts have found jurisdiction to adjudicate a religious institution’s dispute where the ecclesiastical matters were “a mere incident to the determination of some property right.”[4] Even then, however, the courts restricted their jurisdiction to the exercise of neutral principals of law to resolve only those issues related to the disputed property right.[5] In other words, a court may be willing to enforce a religious institution’s doctrines and rules in a neutral fashion according to the strictures of those doctrines and rules.

Thus, the case law creates a conundrum for religious leaders and their congregations. If you give your church leader unrestricted power without any neutral principles to guide their discretion, like an employment contract, they will be able to make decisions about things like finances, subordinate hiring/firing, and religious doctrine without man-made intervention. On the flip-side, granting the religious leader unfettered discretion based solely on faith that he or she will always make decisions for the good of the church and religion will leave members of the congregation without a court remedy if the religious leader is accused of betraying that faith. While a lawyer may not be equipped to counsel on the eternal ramifications of such choices, a clear understanding of the legal consequences can help provide security and positive outcomes for places of worship that should not be embroiled in such man-made disputes.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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