May Church Be Ordered to Let in Parishioners Who Had Been Excluded from Worship Services?

In Retta v. Mekonen (Tex. Ct. App. Mar. 3, 2011), a court of appeals reversed such an order. An excerpt:

On April 12, 2009, the church’s board of trustees amended the church’s bylaws to add a requirement for membership — a contribution of thirty dollars per month. Some church attendees who had lost their membership under the new contribution requirement objected to the amended bylaws, asserting the trustees did not follow the procedures specified for amending the bylaws and that the trustees who approved the amendments were not properly elected under the bylaws.

On May 1, 2010, the trustees learned that several people planned to attend worship services the following day, sit in the balcony, wait for someone to turn out the lights during the service, and throw their shoes (and perhaps other people) from the balcony onto the worshipers seated below. The next day, the trustees closed the balcony and hired four police officers to provide security during the worship service. At the end of the service, one of the trustees stood up to explain why a priest had been fired, but before he could speak, a woman in the congregation asked repeatedly why the balcony was closed. Another trustee summoned one of the police officers and pointed to the woman asking the question and said, “That’s her.” The officer grabbed the woman sitting next to the woman asking the question, led her out of the church, handcuffed her, and put her in a police car. After about twenty minutes, the officer released her.

[Some parishioners sued, claiming the church was violating its own bylaws.-EV] [A trial court issued an injunction order[ing] appellants (1) not to prohibit any person from entering the church “and peaceably participating in worship services or associated activities”; (2) not to forcibly remove any person from worship services without first asking the person to leave peaceably; [and] (3) not to ask any person to leave the worship services “unless that person is causing an actual disruption of the service as viewed from the perspective of a reasonable person under the same or similar circumstances.” …

The First Amendment prohibits governmental action, including court action, that would burden the free exercise of religion by encroaching on a church’s ability to manage its internal affairs…. “It is a core tenet of First Amendment jurisprudence that, in resolving civil claims, courts must be careful not to intrude upon internal matters of church governance….” …

A church has the right to control its membership without government interference, including interference by the courts. Likewise, a church has authority to determine who may enter its premises and who will be excluded without government interference….

In this case, the church’s bylaws provide, “No individual, as a result of any disciplinary measure taken by the Board of Trustees or its officers, may be denied the opportunity to worshiping [sic] in the Church or to receive the Sacraments of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.” However, the church’s failure to follow its bylaws on a matter of internal governance is also a matter of internal church governance and ecclesiastical concerns, and the courts may not interfere with that decision.

Appellees assert the trial court had jurisdiction to grant the injunction under the “neutral principles of law” approach, which, they argue, permits a court to interpret church documents, such as the church’s constitution and bylaws, to determine purely secular matters, such as disputes involving property, contract, or civil rights, without relying on religious precepts to resolve the conflict.

In this case, whether appellants may exclude or remove worshipers does not involve property, contract, or civil rights. Even if the neutral-principles approach extended beyond property disputes, the matter is not purely secular. The question of who may be admitted and who may be excluded or removed from a house of worship is a religious question. Whether appellants had authority under the church’s policies to exclude or remove worshipers is a question of internal church governance. Accordingly, the neutral-principles approach would not permit the trial court to grant the temporary injunction….

Here’s my quick take on this: The heart of the court’s analysis is in the conclusion that the case “does not involve property [or] contract.” A church, like any property owner, has broad rights to exclude people that its management wants to exclude. (I set aside antidiscrimination laws, which are not involved here; churches might well have a constitutional exemption from those laws when it comes to participation in church services, much as they have a constitutional exemption from employment discrimination laws when it comes to hiring clergy.) But a church, like other property owners, may enter binding contracts that let people enter its property, or may sell or give away rights in its property.

If the bylaw had been seen as a legally binding contract, then plaintiffs might indeed have had a contractual right to go to church services, and a court might have properly enforced that right. (I say “might” because there are some possible objections having to do with the constitutional limits on entanglement of government with religious institutions, but those are far from open-and-shut objections.) But the court is treating this bylaw as not a legally binding contract; the results follows from that decision.