Wednesday, December 02, 2020

5th Circuit, By 9-8 Vote, Denies En Banc Review In Ecclesiastical Abstention Case

In McRaney v. North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, Inc., (5th Cir., Nov. 25, 2020), the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals by a vote of 9-8 denied en banc review of a panel decision that had refused to invoke the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in a dispute between the Mission Board and its former executive director. (See prior posting.) In the case, plaintiff alleged that the Mission Board intentionally made false statements about him that led to his termination. Judge Ho, joined by 5 other judges, filed a dissenting opinion, saying in part:

This case falls right in the heartland of the church autonomy doctrine. A former Southern Baptist minister brought this suit to protest his dismissal from church leadership. That fact alone should be enough to bar this suit. As the saying goes, personnel is policy.

... The complaint acknowledges that the plaintiff was dismissed because he “consistently declined to accept” church policy regarding “the specific area of starting new churches..." He even admits that “this cause of action had its roots in Church policy.” We should take him at his word. This case is a dispute over a church’s vision for spreading “the gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church planting”—a fundamental tenet of faith, not just for the defendant in this suit, but for hundreds of millions of evangelicals around the world. Put simply, this suit puts the church’s evangelism on trial.

Judge Oldham, joined by 4 other judges, also filed a dissenting opinion, saying in part:

What matters is that the jurisdictional line prohibiting civil courts from intruding on ecclesiastical matters is an ancient one. It goes back to the Middle Ages. It has been part of England’s formal law since William the Conqueror. It’s so entrenched in English history that even Coke—the seventeenth century’s fiercest champion of civil jurisdiction and the common law—respected it. And although there were disputes about boundaries of ecclesiastical jurisdiction over laypersons like Nicholas Fuller, there could be little dispute about ecclesiastical jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters like ministry disputes and discipline.

[Thanks to Robert Tuttle for the lead.]