Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Marian Guinn Case [2]: right of church discipline ends upon withdrawal of membership

As I mentioned previously, the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruled that:

1. All actions of the church in disciplining Guinn before she withdrew her membership were protected by the First Amendment and thus outside of the purview of secular courts; and

2. After Guinn withdrew her membership, the church no longer had the right to discipline her and was thus liable to Guinn for damages.

The following are the pertinent portions of the decision of the Oklahoma State Supreme Court (sub-headings supplied):

Respect given by secular courts to decisions of church disciplining authorities

The religion clauses of the first amendment, which prohibit both state and federal governments from inhibiting or supporting citizens’ religious interests, were written in an effort to create an environment in which “many types of life, character, opinion and belief . . . [could] develop unmolested and unobstructed.”

Whenever the questions of discipline or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them.

If members of religious organizations could freely pursue their doctrinal grievances in civil courts, or legislatures could pass laws to inhibit or enhance religious activities, ecclesiastical liberty would be subjected to governmental interference and the ‘unmolested and unobstructed’ development of opinion and belief which the First Amendment shield was designed to foster could be secularly undermined.

The disciplinary actions taken by the Elders against Guinn before she withdrew her membership from the Church of Christ did not constitute a threat to public safety, peace or order and hence did not justify state interference.

Right of people to freely choose and join religious organizations

When people voluntarily join together in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment, the First Amendment requires that the government respect their decision and not impose its own ideas on the religious organization. Under the First Amendment people may freely consent to being spiritually governed by an established set of ecclesiastical tenets defined and carried out by those chosen to interpret and impose them.

A person who joins a church voluntarily submits himself to the authority of that church and is therefor bound by its rules

The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it.

Under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, Guinn had the right to consent as a participant in the practices and beliefs of the Church of Christ without fear of governmental interference. As the Church’s chosen spiritual leaders, the Elders were responsible for providing guidance to all those who, like Guinn, had chosen to follow. Under the Free Exercise Clause the Elders had the right to rely on Parishioner’s consensual participation in the congregation when they disciplined her as one who had voluntarily elected to adhere to their doctrinal precepts.

Guinn’s willing submission to the Church of Christ’s dogma, and the Elders’ reliance on that submission, collectively shielded the church’s prewithdrawal, religiously-motivated discipline from scrutiny through secular judicature.

A person has the unqualified right to withdraw his membership from a church

The right to withdraw one’s implied consent to submit to the disciplinary decisions of a church is constitutionally unqualified; its relinquishment requires a knowing and intelligent waiver.

Guinn asserts that her withdrawal of membership from the Collinsville Church of Christ was also effective as a withdrawal of her consent to submit to that church’s beliefs and ecclesiastical disciplinary procedures. Upon her withdrawal, Guinn urges, the church was precluded from sanctioning her as if she were a current member. By continuing to discipline her as though she were a practicing Church of Christ member, the Elders are alleged to have invaded her privacy and caused her emotional distress.

In defense of their actions the Elders claim that the Church of Christ has no doctrinal provision for withdrawal of membership. According to their beliefs, a member remains a part of the congregation for life. Like those who are born into a family, they may leave but they can never really sever the familial bond. A court’s determination that Guinn effectively withdrew her membership and thus her consent to submit to church doctrine would, according to the Elders, be a constitutionally impermissible state usurpation of religious discipline accomplished through judicial interference.

The Elders had never been confronted with a member who chose to withdraw from the church. Because disciplinary proceedings against Guinn had already commenced when she withdrew her membership, the Elders concluded their actions could not be hindered by her withdrawal and would be protected by the First Amendment. Guinn relies on her September 24, 1981 handwritten letter to the Elders in which she unequivocally stated that she withdrew her membership and terminated her consent to being treated as a member of the Church of Christ communion. By common-law standards we find her communication was an effective withdrawal of her membership and of her consent to religious discipline.

Just as freedom to worship is protected by the First Amendment, so also is the liberty to recede from one’s religious allegiance

In Torcaso v. Watkins, the Court reaffirmed that neither a state nor the federal government can force or influence a person to go or to remain away from church against one’s will or to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. The First Amendment clearly safeguards the freedom to worship as well as the freedom not to worship.

When Guinn withdrew her membership from the Church of Christ and thereby withdrew her consent to participate in a spiritual relationship in which she had implicitly agreed to submit to ecclesiastical supervision, those disciplinary actions thereafter taken by the Elders against Guinn, which actively involved her in the church's will and command, were outside the purview of the First Amendment protection and were the proper subject of state regulation.

The church’s right to discipline ends when the person withdraws his membership

Disciplinary practices involving members of an ecclesiastical association, which do not pose a substantial threat to public safety, peace or order, are unquestionably among those hallowed First Amendment rights with which the government cannot interfere. If these sectarian matters were easily subject to civil adjudication and liability by secular judicature, the First Amendment shield under which “many types of life, character, opinion and belief can develop unmolested and unobstructed” would be rendered impotent.

First Amendment protection does not extend to all religiously-motivated disciplinary practices in which ecclesiastical organizations might engage. By its very nature, ecclesiastical discipline involves both church and member. It is a means of religious expression as well as a means of ecclesiastically judging one who transgresses a church law which one has consented to obey. The right to express dissatisfaction with the disobedience of those who have promised to adhere to doctrinal precepts and to take ecclesiastically-mandated measures to bring wayward members back within the bounds of accepted behavior, are forms of religious expression and association which the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause was designed to protect and preserve. And yet the constitutionally protected freedom to impose even the most deeply felt, spiritually-inspired disciplinary measure is forfeited when the object of “benevolent” concern is one who has terminated voluntary submission to another’s supervision and command.

After Guinn withdrew her membership from the Collinsville Church of Christ, the Elders were neither absolutely nor conditionally privileged to publicize private facts about her life.