Unlike the previous post, this case actually addresses the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. Parents divorce and have a parenting plan. The plan is set forth on a court-provided form and includes a box as to religious education. Two boxes were checked: the first box states, “Each parent may take the minor children to a church of place of worship of his or her choice while the minor children are in his or her care.” The second box states, “Both parents agree the minor children may be instructed in the ____ faith.” The blank is handwritten with the word “Christian.” Father later joins The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He takes his children to church and mother objects. The superior court judge conducts an evidentiary hearing and considers testimony from a youth ministry leader who testified that the father’s church is not Christian. After considering this and other evidence, the trial court agrees. The court of appeals reverses. First, the first box unambiguously states that either parent may take the children to any place of worship. Second, the use of the word “may” indicates permissive intent, and it allows for instruction in the Christian faith but does not require it. The court of appeals could end it there, but we would be left wondering what the trial judge was thinking in conducting an evidentiary hearing on religious belief. The court of appeals continues and answers this by holding the trial court violated the First Amendment when it ruled father’s church is not Christian or part of the Christian Faith. The First Amendment prohibits the exact inquiry made by the trial court. One would expect an evidentiary hearing on Christian beliefs is so far out-of-bounds a trial court would have paused before it “dove into an ecclesiastical matter.” The trial court exercised an authority and a competency it is constitutionally barred from asserting. Perhaps following a fill-in-the-blank kiosk form invited such an intrusion. The court of appeals reminds litigants that courts will enforce specific agreements, but courts may not construe agreements that compel religious inquiry. Poorly drafted agreements as to religious upbringing of children are not enforceable. “The ambiguities surrounding the phrase ‘the Christian faith’ thrust the court directly into a matter of theological controversy in which it could not take part.”
The court begins: “We hold that though the claims arose against a religious backdrop, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply because the claims require no inquiry into religious matters.” Plaintiff sued the Rabbi of his Jewish community for failing to correct a false accuser and allegedly helping the false accuser rally the community against him by making false statements. The false statements were serious allegations of grooming children for molestation. The case was dismissed on motion, and other than a letter which the court determines for other reasons does not provide a basis upon which relief may be granted, the opinion is not specific as to what Rabbi Deitsch actually did. Of course, it is difficult to get into such facts on a motion to dismiss. The court reminds us that “religious organizations and officials remain subject to neutral tort laws.” But whether the claims require inquiry into religious matters is never discussed. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and its relative the ministerial exception are part of the “church autonomy” doctrine and prevent civil litigants from entering church. Without proving up its point that it is not entering the church doors, the court chases down the allegations under tort law and finds there is enough support for an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. It ties up at the end with a remark that the false accuser is not an indispensable party. One may ask why this is a published opinion. It offers a passing reference to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and an attitude about a motion to dismiss. Nothing more.
It appears that our last post was premature. Due to popular demand (there actually was some of that, believe it or not), the Arizona Appellate Blog can continue. It will, however, be under new management. We’re happy to announce that an extremely knowledgeable and experienced civil practitioner has volunteered to take over. The new blogger may not be as jaded, sour, and judgmental as we have always endeavored to be. But fear not — having to explain these opinions over and over again should cure that soon enough. The next voice you hear will be that of our esteemed successor. Thanks again.