Tuesday, August 11, 2020

11th Circuit: Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Covers Church Leadership Dispute

In Eglise Baptise Bethanie De Ft. Lauderdale, Inc. v. Seminole Tribe of Florida, (11th Cir., Aug. 19, 2020) the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a Florida federal district court's dismissal of a suit filed to settle a dispute over church leadership between the church's board of directors and the widow of its deceased pastor. One faction enlisted tribal police to evict worshipers supporting the other faction during a worship service. The court said in part:

The plaintiffs claim that the district court erred in dismissing the claims against Auguste because their claim—rather than involving ecclesiastical disputes—is merely a property dispute. That framing ignores two threshold issues. Before reaching the plaintiffs’ § 248 claim, a court would need to determine whether Auguste was the rightful successor to the church’s leadership and, if she was, whether Auguste had the authority to exclude the plaintiffs from the church’s property. Answering these questions would require us to inquire into church rules, policies, and decision-making and questions of church governance are manifestly ecclesiastical.