Tuesday, May 08, 2007, 12:40 PM

SCT Issues First Amendment Decision In Suit Against Pastor

Last Friday, in Harris v. Matthews, the SCT held, 5-2, that the First Amendment's religion clauses wouldn't permit a dispute over church property to go forward, on the basis that adjudication would entangle the courts in ecclesiastical matters. Justice Newby wrote the opinion. Justices Hudson and Timmons-Goodson dissented.

The Majority Decision

Plaintiffs, as members of a non-profit corporation Baptist church, brought a derivative action against their pastor, alleging that he converted church funds, breached a fiduciary duty owed to the church and its members, and engaged in a civil conspiracy to convert money and assets of the church. The majority held the case must be dismissed on the basis that it's an internal church governance dispute, the adjudication of which would entangle the courts in ecclesiastical matters in violation of the First Amendment's religion clauses. The majority held that "in order to address plaintiffs' claims, the trial court would be required to interpose its judgment as to both the proper role of these church officials and whether each expenditure was proper in light of [the church's] religious doctrine and practice, to the exclusion of the church's duly constituted leadership.”

Justice Brady's Concurrence: Jefferson's Metaphor Of A "Wall Of Separation Between Church And State" Has Been Misused; Government Need Not Be Neutral Between Religion And Irreligion

Justice Brady presumably knows a thing or two about church operations: according to his official bio, "Justice Brady is a conservative Southern Baptist" who serves on the personnel committee of his church and on the board of a Baptist seminary. In this case Justice Brady was compelled to write separately to share his views on the metaphor of a "wall of separation" between church and state. He put it this way: "as Joshua and the tribes of Israel were compelled to march around the walls of Jericho as the priests blew the horns, I am compelled to write separately to provide a word of caution: While the metaphor of a 'wall of separation between church and state' may fit nicely in a case such as the one sub judice, it is generally a misplaced metaphor that should not occupy such a lofty position in religious freedom jurisprudence." Justice Brady then reviewed the exchange of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Association of Baptists to show that Jefferson's metaphor "'has been wrenched torturously out of context in many circumstances to require 'neutrality on the part of government between religion and irreligion.'"

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