When churches face lawsuits, does their religious liberty hinge on whether or not their accuser is an official member? Experts are concerned that, in an unusual baptism gone wrong, a state supreme court has decided yes.
Nearly a year ago, the Oklahoma Supreme Court decided 5–3 that a Muslim convert to Christianity—whose baptism nearly got him killed—couldn’t sue First Presbyterian Church in Tulsa for inadvertently alerting his would-be murderers with its online announcement of the baptism.
Ten months later—in December 2017—the justices changed their minds, issuing a 5–4 decision that the man could, in fact, have his day in court.
This month, First Presbyterian asked the Sooner State’s top court to take a third look at the case, arguing that the justices mixed up two separate issues of law: the ecclesiastical extension/church autonomy doctrine and the ministerial exception.
The trouble started more than six years ago, when a Syrian Muslim man converted to Christianity and asked if he could be baptized by First Presbyterian. The man—who is called John Doe in court documents to protect his identity—says he asked the church to keep quiet about it, since shari‘ah law demands that converts from Islam be executed.
Later that day, the man flew to Syria to marry his fiancée. A few weeks later, while still there, he was kidnapped and threatened by Islamist extremists, including his uncle and cousin.
His abductors had discovered his conversion through First Presbyterian’s online weekly bulletin, which announced his baptism, according to his lawsuit. After three days of torture, the man escaped after killing his uncle during a struggle for a gun.
It took several months for the man and his wife to make their way back to the United States, he told the Tulsa World. After returning, he went through more than a dozen surgeries to repair his body from the torture.
He sued First Presbyterian for $75,000, accusing it of breach of contract, negligence, and outrage. The church asked for the case to be dismissed, reasoning that secular courts don’t have jurisdiction over ecclesiastical matters like theology and customs.
The district court agreed, dismissing the case “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.” When the man appealed to the state supreme court, it said the same thing. The case was dismissed in February 2017.
Then, last month, the Oklahoma Supreme Court handed down another ruling.
“No facts changed,” First Presbyterian’s attorney, John Tucker, told CT. And in the ruling itself, no reason was given for the rehearing, which can be requested by a losing party after any decision.
But one of the justices that sat out the first decision weighed in (on Doe’s side) the second time around, Tucker said. And one of the justices that agreed with the church in February changed his mind by December.
“The foundational inquiry is to discern exactly what Doe asked appellees to do with respect to baptism, what appellees agreed to perform for Doe, and ultimately the nature and extent of Doe’s consent surrounding baptism,” the justices stated, noting multiple times that Doe did not become a member of First Presbyterian.
“[E]cclesiastical protection for a church arises solely from membership and the consent by the person to be governed by the church,” their opinion continued [emphasis theirs]. They referenced the US Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision, in which all nine justices agreed that the government couldn’t interfere if a religious organization wanted to fire a minister.
“[T]he ministerial exception or the church autonomy doctrine, grounded in the religion clause of the First Amendment, ‘operates as an affirmative defense to an otherwise cognizable claim, not a jurisdictional bar,’” the Oklahoma Supreme Court justices decided [emphasis theirs].
In other words, a religious organization can use the ministerial exception or church autonomy doctrine to defend itself during a case, but not use it to escape from trial altogether.
But that’s where the court got it wrong, Tucker argued in his petition for rehearing.
Yes, the ministerial exception can be used to defend oneself at trial. But the church autonomy doctrine is something altogether different. It “establishes a constitutional denial of jurisdiction,” which means that a secular court has no right to even try the case in the first place.
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Source: Christianity Today