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September 21, 2015

COA holds that church advisory body is congregational in nature and therefore judiciary could not resolve wrongful termination dispute

In Hillenbrand v. Christ Lutheran Church of Birch Run, No. 319127, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that defendant church’s advisory body was congregational and not hierarchical in nature and that state jurisdiction over the matter would violate First and Fourteenth Amendment principles. Therefore, the court affirmed the trial court’s order granting defendant church’s motion for summary disposition.
 
In 2012, Plaintiff Hillenbrand, a pastor, was terminated from his position by defendant, Christ Lutheran Church of Birch Run. At the time, Christ Lutheran Church of Birch Run was a member of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (“LCMS”). After Hillenbrand’s termination, LCMS’s Dispute Resolution Panel (the “Panel”), held a hearing and concluded that the church’s decision to terminate Hillenbrand should be revised and that Hillenbrand was entitled to back pay. The church did not attend the hearing, withdrew from LCMS, and declined to review its decision as advised by the Panel. Hillenbrand then filed this civil action for wrongful termination. Hillenbrand argued that because LCMS is hierarchical in nature, the decision by the Panel was binding on the church and requested that the court enforce it as such. The trial court granted the church’s motion and held that LCMS was congregational in nature and therefore the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction under MCR 2.116(C)(4).
 
In a civil case, the judiciary has a limited role in resolving disputes involving church organizations based on First and Fourteenth Amendment restrictions. Whether the court can play a role in the dispute depends on whether a denomination is hierarchical or congregational in nature. If hierarchical, then the judiciary has jurisdiction to enter a judgment over the matter.  If congregational, the judiciary does not have jurisdiction and may not deprive the church of control over those who will personify its beliefs.
 
The Court of Appeals held that LCMS’s constitution contained unambiguous language indicating that it was congregational. In particular, LCMS’s constitution stated that it “is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive power, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body.” The Court of Appeals concluded that this language unequivocally showed that LCMS was an advisory body and therefore the trial court properly granted summary disposition to the church. Additionally, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred when it held that the church’s withdrawal from LCMS nullified the Panel’s decision. The court reasoned that LCMS’s by-laws contain a provision that a member may not withdraw from LCMS in a way that renders a dispute resolution hearing process inapplicable. The court then held that, though the Panel’s decisions are not rendered inapplicable by withdrawal from membership, the provision had no effect on the outcome of this case because LCMS is merely an advisory body; thus, the Panel’s decision is non-binding on the church.

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