Some key court decisions on church discipline:
(Ohio Court, 1947)
Summary: A church member, Andrew Yoder, attempted to switch churches to buy a car. His previous church excommunicated and then shunned him. He argued that his business was destroyed and he and has family had been made to suffer intense emotional pain. He argued that this sort of discipline constituted religious coercion.
Outcome: The court supported the Yoder, found the the church leadership's act $5000 saying that while it couldn't make any individual interact with Andrew Yoder the church organizing the shunning had constituted a violation of his civil rights.
(Pennsylvania Supreme Court, 1975)
Summary: A church member was excommunicated for criticizing the bishop's teachings. Other members, including the man's wife and children, were ordered to shun him. He argued that his business and family were destroyed.
Outcome: The court supported the man, saying that despite the church's First Amendment rights, its conduct interfered with superior concerns, such as the preservation of marriage.
Paul vs. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society
(9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco, 1987)
Summary: A Jehovah's Witness in Washington withdrew from the church because she felt her parents had been unjustly excommunicated. The denomination said members who quit should be treated just like those who are excommunicated. When the member visited her hometown, friends in the church shunned her.
Outcome: The court said she had no standing because shunning is part of the faith and protected by the Constitution.
(Oklahoma Supreme Court, 1989)
Summary: Elders publicly confronted a church member with a rumor that she was fornicating with a man and asked her to repent. When she refused and tried to quit, the elders told the congregation to call her and urge her to repent. They asked other Church of Christ parishes to do the same.
Outcome: The woman was awarded monetary damages. The court said she withdrew her consent to be disciplined when she quit the church.
(California and USA Supreme Court, 1989)
Summary: Lawrence Wollersheim was subjected to criminal acts of abuse when he attempted to leave the church and a campaign of fraud as part of a discipline process.
Outcome: The courts held that criminal acts even if part of religious process are not protected. The courts reaffirmed the 4 part test of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) for regulating expression of belief. They held in particular that discipline may not include criminal acts.
Williams vs. Gleason
(14th District Texas Court of Appeals, Houston, 2000)
Summary: Elders at a Presbyterian church disputed a Sunday school teacher's lessons. The teacher filed a complaint against the elders. They in turn accused him of lying and disciplined him. A deacon's wife called another Presbyterian church where the teacher preached and questioned his qualifications.
Outcome: The court said it was constitutionally prohibited from ruling on an ecclesiastical dispute over church discipline.
Bryce vs. Episcopal Church
(10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Denver, 2002)
Summary: A Colorado Episcopal church sent letters and held meetings with members after learning that its youth minister had entered into a same-sex civil commitment with a minister in a non-Episcopal church. The letters said homosexuals are promiscuous and get terrible diseases. The youth minister and her partner said members made offensive remarks at the church meetings.
Outcome: The court said the two women had no standing to sue. Though the partner wasn't a member, the church still had a right to discuss their religious beliefs.
(Texas Supreme Court, 2004)
Summary: A woman and her husband attended a group marriage discussion hosted by their Bible church pastor, a licensed professional counselor. The woman divorced her husband and quit the church. The pastor sent a letter to the congregation, saying she had an inappropriate relationship with another man.
Outcome: The court said the pastor's First Amendment rights might not apply because of his role as a licensed counselor. He has appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.