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Appeals pass over religious issues

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion … rendered [people] much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for the common good.” —James Madison, The Federalist (1787)

Two major religions are celebrating overlapping holiday seasons at the end of this week: Good Friday and Easter for Christians, memorializing the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the eight-day celebration of Passover starting this weekend in commemoration of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.

As these religions participate in their venerable rites and rituals, the federal and state courts for Minnesota have chosen to pass on cases raising age-old issues of religious rights. A pair of recent decisions by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals and its Minnesota counterpart, decided within a 24-hour span, refused to consider the merits of religion-related disputes.

The cases raised different issues but shared the same reasoning and results. In both, the tribunals declined to adjudicate the merits to avoid “entanglements” under the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Factional feud

A fight between two factions over control of a religious congregation was deemed beyond its authority to resolve by the 8th Circuit in Hutterville Hutterian Brethren v. Sveen, 776 F.3d 547 (8th Cir. 2015). The South Dakota plaintiff, one of the feuding groups, sued several lawyers and a law firm for conspiring with the other faction to improperly create a schism and put that segment in control of the entity. The lawsuit was brought in federal court after internecine litigation was dismissed by the state Supreme Court on grounds that the dispute was outside of “judicial scrutiny” under the First Amendment.

The case likewise was dismissed by the federal trial court, which concurred with the South Dakota tribunal, refusing to rule on the merits for constitutional grounds. The matter was taken up to the 8th Circuit by the claimants, represented by co-counsel from Minnesota. While disagreeing with the trial court’s view that standing was lacking, the appellate court nonetheless found “a crucial defect” in the proceedings. The factual flaw was that adjudication requires inquiry into “religious matters” that are precluded by First Amendment jurisprudence.

The reasoning was the converse of how the tribunal adjudicated another religion-related dispute last spring. The 8th Circuit considered Wallace v. Conagra Foods, 747 F.3d 1025 (8th Cir. 2014). The dismissal by Judge Donovan Frank of a class-action lawsuit in Minnesota by consumers claiming mislabeling “kosher” food products on grounds of “excessive entanglements.” But the 8th Circuit determined that the lawsuit was not sustainable because of lack of standing, not due to “entanglements.” See Court: no standing in ‘Kosher’ case,” in the April 28, 2014, edition of Minnesota Lawyer. The case ultimately was dismissed on similar “entanglement” grounds as reversed by the Dakota County District Court.

As determined in the state court litigation, adjudicating the propriety of control of the South Dakota religious organization yielded the same outcome, judicial abstention, because any such determination would excessively entangle the court in impermissible “religious inquiries.” Thus, the factional stalemate was allowed to continue due to the dismissal of the lawsuit.

Disciplinary dispute

A defamation dispute within a religious congregation in Worthington yielded the same outcome: judicial abstention, in Pfeil v. St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 39 (Minn. App. Jan. 12, 2015) (unpublished). The Nobles County District Court dismissed defamation claims by an elderly couple who were long standing members of a local church arising out of statements made by the pastor of a congregational meeting decrying a wide variety of disruptive behavior including repeated slander and attempts to “discredit” the church personnel.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, applying the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” to dismiss the lawsuit. The “excessive entanglements” tenet of Establishment Clause jurisprudence under the First Amendment “prohibits a court from inquiring into or reviewing” internal issues relating to a religious institution. Under this doctrine courts “lack subject matter jurisdiction” for disputes of this kind that are “strictly and purely ecclesiastical” in nature.

Therefore, the lower court’s dismissal of the case properly “honors the separation of church and state.” The congregants, therefore, were left to indicate their representations elsewhere.

Rude ruling

But the 8th Circuit did pass upon another religious-related case, holding that a state law prohibiting disturbing worship by “rude” behavior is unconstitutional in Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests v. Joyce, F.3d (8th Cir. March 9, 2015). The Missouri measure, known as the Worship Protection Act, makes it a misdemeanor, or a felony for repeated offenses, for anyone who engages in “profane discourse, rude, or indecent behavior” in or near a house of worship.

The law was successfully challenged by a group protesting sexual abuse by priests outside of Catholic churches at Sunday Mass services. Writing for the panel, Judge Diana Murphy of Minnesota, decried the statute because it is “not a mere content-neutral time, place, and manner regulation,” but is “targeted … at the extensive content of the message.”

Because the measure “drains content-based restrictions and cannot survive strict scrutiny,” the lower court ruling upholding it was denied and reversed.

The aversion to the type of law stricken in the SNAP case is hardly universal. In mid-March, the country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) sentenced three men to prison for two years for posting an online image of the Buddha wearing headphones.

The effort to promote an upcoming music event transgressed the country’s religious act which proscribes “insulting, damaging, or destroying religion.” Human rights advocates decried the prosecution “outrageous … instance of criminalizing free expression.”

Camp case

Religious issues also did not preclude adjudication by the Minnesota appellate court of a zoning dispute concerning the expansion of a religious-operated camp near Brainerd in Whitefish Area Property Owners Association v. Minnesota-Iowa Baptist Conference, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 149 (Minn. App. Feb. 17, 2015) (unpublished). Upholding a pair of decisions in Crow Wing County, the appellate court held that the Board of Commissioners properly approved an amendment of a conditional use permit for a 100-acre campground by a religious conclave, as well as a determination by the County Board of Commissioners that an Environmental Assessment Watershed (EAW) was not required for proposed expansion of a 15-acre portion of the site from grassland and forest to infrastructure. Although some “environmental concerns” existed, there was no evidence that the project would “have the potential for significant environmental effects” to warrant an EAW.

An EAW was not needed because only a 15-acre area was to be transformed, less than the 80-acre threshold triggering a mandatory report. Nor was the decision arbitrary, or capricious, or tainted by a conflict of interest of a board member who was a member of the religious group because he had not “played an active role” in the proceedings.

Defamation decision

Unlike the disinclination to adjudicate the intra-church defamation issue in the Pfeil case, another prong of the First Amendment, the freedom of expression provision, was of no avail to a homeowner subject to a harassment restraining order (HRO) in Westbrooke Condo Association v. Pittel, 2015 Minn. App. LEXIS 22 (Minn. App. Jan. 12, 2015) (unpublished). The First Amendment claimant was barred by the Hennepin County District Court from publishing adverse materials on three websites regarding two property managers and the association governing board of the condominium complex in Hopkins where he lived.  Upholding the HRO, the appellate court rejected the freedom of expression claim. The restrictive order was appropriate because the “primary purpose” of the postings, asserting criminal activities by the Board of Directors and managers was to defame or harass, was “narrowly tailored” and “not unconstitutionally vague.”

Ecclesiastical disputes occasionally permeate the civil justice system. As these cases illustrate, the courts are reluctant to resolve them to avoid constitutional “entanglements.”

* Originally published on, March 30, 2015