Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
One value that both religion clauses serve is to enforce governmental neutrality in deciding controversies arising out of religious disputes. Schisms sometimes develop within churches or between a local church and the general church, resulting in secession or expulsion of one faction or of the local church. A dispute over which body is to control the property of the church will then often be taken into the courts. It is now established that both religion clauses prevent governmental inquiry into religious doctrine in settling such disputes, and instead require courts simply to look to the decision-making body or process in the church and to give effect to whatever decision is officially and properly made.
The first such case was Watson v. Jones, 1 which was decided on common-law grounds in a diversity action without explicit reliance on the First Amendment. A constitutionalization of the rule was made in Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 2 in which the Court held unconstitutional a state statute that recognized the autonomy and authority of those North American branches of the Russian Orthodox Church that had declared their independence from the general church. Recognizing that Watson v. Jones had been decided on nonconstitutional grounds, the Court thought nonetheless that the opinion
radiates . . . a spirit of freedom for religious organizations, and independence from secular control or manipulation – in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine. 3 The power of civil courts to resolve church property disputes was severely circumscribed, the Court held, because to permit resolution of doctrinal disputes in court was to jeopardize First Amendment values. What a court must do, it held, is to look at the church rules: if the church is a hierarchical one that reposes determination of ecclesiastical issues in a certain body, the resolution by that body is determinative, whereas if the church is a congregational one that prescribes action by a majority vote, that determination will prevail. 4 On the other hand, a court confronted with a church property dispute could apply
neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, when to do so would not require resolution of doctrinal issues. 5 In a 1976 case, the Court elaborated on the limits of proper inquiry, holding that an argument over a matter of internal church government – the power to reorganize the dioceses of a hierarchical church in this country – was
at the core of ecclesiastical affairs and a court could not interpret the church constitution to make an independent determination of the power but must defer to the interpretation of the church body authorized to decide. 6
In Jones v. Wolf, 7 however, a divided Court, while formally adhering to these principles, appeared to depart in substance from their application. A schism had developed in a local church that was a member of a hierarchical church, and the majority voted to withdraw from the general church. The proper authority of the general church determined that the minority constituted the
true congregation of the local church and awarded them authority over it. But rather than requiring deference to the decision of the church body, the Court approved the approach of the state court in applying neutral principles by examining the deeds to the church property, state statutes, and provisions of the general church’s constitution concerning ownership and control of church property in order to determine that no language of trust in favor of the general church was contained in any of them and that the property thus belonged to the local congregational majority. 8 Further, the Court held, the First Amendment did not prevent the state court from applying a presumption of majority rule to award control to the majority of the local congregation, provided that it permitted defeasance of the presumption upon a showing that the identity of the local church is to be determined by some other means as expressed perhaps in the general church charter. 9 The dissent argued that to permit a court narrowly to view only the church documents relating to property ownership permitted it to ignore the fact that the dispute was over ecclesiastical matters and that the general church had decided which faction of the congregation was the local church. 10
Thus, it is unclear where the Court is on this issue. Jones v. Wolf restated the rule that it is improper to review an ecclesiastical dispute and that deference is required in those cases, but, by approving a neutral principles inquiry which in effect can filter out the doctrinal issues underlying a church dispute, the Court seems to have approved at least an indirect limitation of the authority of hierarchical churches. 11