The complex relationship between church governance and secular laws has long been a source of concern for churches. Restricting state interference in church affairs was one of the motivations behind the U.S. Constitution’s “establishment clause.” Over the course of time the courts have interpreted the establishment clause to give churches broad leeway to govern their internal affairs in accordance with settled church doctrine. One way a church can improve the power of the establishment clause as a defense against state interference in church affairs is to adopt clear, written statements setting out the church’s core religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court has ruled that churches have the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952). Among other things, this power extends to matters relating to the employment of clergy, captured in the so-called “ministerial exception” which protects churches from federal employment discrimination suits. It can also extend to other areas that are covered by existing church doctrine.
Seeking protection from state interference with respect to a specific doctrinal issue may require filing a lawsuit or being prepared to defend against a suit should someone seek to enforce a state or federal law over the church’s wishes. On the one hand, a church might have allies among other churches who share similar views, so that the burden of such a suit might be spread out among like-minded congregations. On the other hand, if the doctrinal issue involved isn’t well established, perhaps because it is a particular view held by the local congregation and not by the wider church, or for some other reason, the church will need to prove that its position is in fact doctrine.
Although a church can pursue numerous strategies for proving its doctrinal beliefs, a powerful source of evidence is the church’s already established policies. In some cases these policies will be available from a parent organization, but in many other cases churches may need to craft them from scratch. From a legal standpoint, it can be helpful for church leaders to debate and formally adopt a written policy on religious or doctrinal matters in the same way that other kinds of governance documents, such as a fundraising or social medial policy, are adopted.
The Church Law Center of California counsels churches and secular nonprofits on a broad range of governance and compliance issues. If your church has questions about how it can protect itself from state interference, we can give you answers. Call us at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.