April 1 wasn’t a Fool’s Day for religious freedom in Kentucky. In Nelson v. Baker, the Court of Appeals soundly rejected a claim by former members of First Baptist Church of Jeffersontown, Kentucky who sued for the right to access the church’s financial information. It is foolish for believers to sue one another despite the Bible’s clear admonition not to in I Cor. 6:7. But that’s a different, more fundamental, matter I’ll get to in a second.
The good news is the court wasn’t fooled by an attempt to characterize access to church financial information as a completely secular matter. Courts have long held that the First Amendment protects churches from interference from government officials in the areas of doctrine, membership, policy, and interaction with its pastors. You can find a detailed analysis of this area of the law - often referred to as “Church Autonomy” – on our resource page in a document titled Church Autonomy White Paper – Protecting Churches From Government Interference.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals rightly applied this law and found that determining who gets access to financial documents is one of the things churches can decide for themselves. It held: ”The Church’s financial records and method of presentation to the congregation are clearly matters of internal governance and organization, and are, therefore, not subject to interference by the court.” The court’s refusal to encroach upon church autonomy is a reminder that the best way for the government to avoid establishing a religion in violation of the First Amendment is to leave churches alone.
The court’s decision also reminds us that church members should stop foolishly attempting to drag courts into the realm of religion by filing lawsuits against their own church body. The Apostle Paul wisely advised in I Cor. 6:1-6, “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? …[I]f you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother goes to law against another – and this in front of unbelievers!”
Lawsuits like this make the whole Body of Christ look foolish.
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