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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Asks U.S. Supreme Court to Restrain Government From Meddling in Church Affairs, Abide by First Amendment’s Establishment Clause

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the government from meddling in church affairs. In weighing in before the Court in Episcopal Church v. The Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn against a trend in which state courts have attempted to second-guess church decisions on inherently religious matters by relying on so-called “neutral principles.” In their amicus brief, Institute attorneys argue that such rulings violate the First Amendment’s strict prohibition on government interference in religious matters. The case involves an attempt by the Texas Supreme Court to apply so-called “neutral principles” to a dispute by factions of the Episcopal Church over who should own and control church property.

Attorney Tejinder Singh of Goldstein & Russell, P.C., in Bethesda, Md., assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments before the Supreme Court. 

“The Constitution establishes a neutral playing field for all viewpoints and requires the government to remain equally impartial and not favor or disfavor one religion over another, or favor or disfavor religion over non-religion,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “When it comes to matters involving church doctrine, church governance and the internal workings of religious institutions, however, the government needs to stay clear of that wall of separation between church and state, and resist the urge to meddle altogether.”

The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical religious denomination organized to include over 100 local dioceses which must accede to the authority of the General Church. In response to a 1979 Supreme Court ruling allowing, but not requiring, state courts to apply “neutral principles” of law in resolving property disputes arising from schisms within churches, the Episcopal Church amended its canons to make clear that all property held by Episcopal Church entities is held in trust and for the General Church.  In the mid-2000’s, doctrinal disagreements led to factions of a diocese in Ft. Worth and a parish in San Angelo to break away from the Episcopal Church. In connection with the splits, the breakaway factions took steps, such as amending articles of incorporation, to take control of church property, including houses of worship.  When the breakaway factions refused to recognize the Episcopal Church’s claims to the property in accordance with church canons, the Episcopal Church brought two legal actions in Texas state courts to recover the property. Although a trial court in each case found that Texas law requires deference to the decision of the Episcopal Church that church property belonged to the factions loyal to the church, in appeals brought by the breakaway factions the Texas Supreme Court held that the lower courts should apply “neutral principles” of law to resolve the property disputes and reversed. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Episcopal Church’s appeal, the case was sent back to the state courts, which again applied “neutral principles” to deny the Episcopal Church’s claims to the property.  The Episcopal Church again sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that lower courts are inconsistent in their approach to resolving church property disputes and that the “neutral principles” method of doing so is inconsistent with the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty. In filing a brief in support of the Episcopal Church’s petition, Institute attorneys argue that permitting a secular court to decide these issues without deference to church authorities is tantamount to replacing church governance with the state or federal government, a proposition that threatens free exercise as well as the establishment of religion.      

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms. 

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