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Property Rights, Civil Courts and Admission to Religious Schools

Female Teenage Student Studying In Classroom

In a recent decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed that Civil Courts will not interfere with a decision of a religious institution to admit students to its program based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine – the same doctrine applied to Church property disputes.

In Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc. d/b/a Notre Dame Preparatory High School and Marist Academy, Court of Appeals No. 323511 (Rel. November 12, 2015), the Plaintiff parent filed suit when her daughter was denied admission to the high school. The minor, who attended a Catholic parochial grade school for her seventh and eighth grade year, applied to Notre Dame High School and was denied admission even though, as she alleged in her complaint, while a grade school student, her high school admission was assured. Two months after being denied admission, she was diagnosed with learning disabilities and filed suit-alleging discrimination in the admission procedures based on her disability under Michigan statutory law.

In rejecting her claim, the Court of Appeals began its analysis with the following review of the state of the law with respect to addressing religious based claims:

It is well settled that courts, both federal and state, are severely circumscribed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and art 1, § 4 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963 in resolution of disputes between a church and its members.” Maciejewski v Breitenbeck, 162 Mich App 410, 413-414; 413 NW2d 65 (1987). “[C]ivil courts have the general authority to resolve church property disputes.” Lamont Community Church v Lamont Christian Reformed Church, 285 Mich App 602, 615; 777 NW2d 15 (2009). While “civil courts have jurisdiction to determine property rights involving ecclesiastical organizations,” “jurisdiction is limited to property rights that can be resolved by application of civil law.” Dlaikan, 206 Mich App at 593. That is, under the First Amendment, circuit courts are prohibited from resolving church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and ecclesiastical polity. Lamont Community Church, 285 Mich App at 615. “Whenever the court must stray into questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity the court loses jurisdiction. Religious doctrine refers to ritual, liturgy of worship and tenants of the faith. Polity refers to organization and form of government of the church.” Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church v Pearson, ___ Mich App ___, ___; ___ NW2d ___ (2015) (Docket Nos. 318797, 319571); slip op at 4 (citations omitted), quoting Maciejewski, 162 Mich App at 414. Dlaikan, 206 Mich App at 592.

Relying on the Dlaikan decision, the Court held that review of the school’s admission decision fell outside the jurisdiction of civil courts, explaining:

When the claim involves the provision of the very services (or as here refusal to provide these services) for which the organization enjoys First Amendment protection, then any claimed contract for such services likely involves its ecclesiastical policies, outside the purview of civil law. In this regard there can be no distinction between a church providing a liturgical service in its sanctuary and providing education imbued with its religious doctrine in its parochial school. A civil court should avoid foray into a “property dispute” regarding admission to a church’s religious or educational activities, the essence of its constitutionality-protected function. To do so is to set foot on the proverbial slippery slope toward entanglement toward entanglement in matters of doctrine or ecclesiastical polity.

Thus, “the claim,” whether it is premised on a breach of contract or disability discrimination, “involves the provision of the very services (or as here refusal to provide these services) for which the organization enjoys First Amendment protection[.]” Accordingly, the school prevailed in its case.

This case provides significant guidance with respect to the application of the abstention doctrine not only to resolving disputes over the ownership of church property but to other areas involving religious institutions. In this case, the Court addressed school admission policy and criteria. The same First Amendment analysis can be applied to cases involving challenges to groups who seek to use the facilities of a religious organization who is engaged in conduct that is forbidden by the religious group, to employment claim asserted by employees whose behavior is contrary to the religious beliefs of the religious employer

The key to applying the First Amendment defense is clear policies and consistent application of the policies to the general public.

If you have concerns regarding your policies, or the application of the policies within your religious organization, please contact one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to prepare or review and comment on existing policies to make sure that your religious entity can rely on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

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