CHURCH DISPUTES: Civil Courts Limited

Generally, civil courts lack jurisdiction to hear “ecclesiastical” disputes within a church, although courts may hear church disputes that are “secular” in nature. The question of who will preach from the pulpit of a church is an ecclesiastical question, review of which by the civil courts is limited by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

In determining whether courts have jurisdiction over church disputes, courts apply a two-tiered analysis. First, courts must look at whether the church is hierarchical or congregational. If the church is hierarchical, civil courts generally lack jurisdiction to hear the dispute. However, if the church is congregational, a civil court has jurisdiction only to determine the narrow issue of whether the decision concerning the ecclesiastical dispute was made by the proper church authority.

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