SW Legal studies in Business

Churches Not Immune from Neutral Civil Laws
Description Appeals court held that the member of a church could sue the church in tort based on her claim that the pastor of the church cheated her out of $286,000 and induced her to have sex with him. The legal issues are based on civil laws that do not interfere with religious matters protected by the First Amendment.
Topic Constitutional Law
Key Words First Amendment; Ecclesiastical Abstention; Torts.
C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts The Church of the Nazarene, to reach out to the Persian community on the east side of Phoenix, hired Yousfi to be a pastor in the area. Rashedi, who became a member of the local church headed by Yousfi, contended that Yousefi defrauded her out of $286,000 and engaged in sex with her. She sued the parent organization for negligent hiring, negligent supervision, and negligence based on respondeat superior. The church defended that the civil action violated the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, which holds that civil courts are not to become involved in matter of church law due to the First Amendment. The district court dismissed the suit; Rashedi appealed.
Decision

Reversed. "The claims in question can be resolved by application of neutral principles of civil law and, therefore the trial court does have subject-matter jurisdiction." There are no ecclesiastical issues involved. "When a church-related dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving a religious controversy, the civil courts may adjudicate the dispute. Because religious organizations are part of the civil community, they are subject to societal rules governing property rights, torts, and criminal conduct. The First Amendment does not excuse individuals or religious groups from complying with valid neutral laws."

Citation Rashedi v. General Board of Church of the Nazarene, --- P.3d --- (2002 WL 31086992, Ct. App., Ariz., 2002)

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