In the recent case, Hutterville v. Warden, the South Dakota Supreme Court rightly refused to get involved in a church dispute because it would have interfered with religious freedom. The conflict arose in a Hutterian church whose members govern their lives by New Testament principles and live in an agrarian, communal colony. They share common roots with Mennonites and the Amish. The church split into two factions, each of which supported a different leader. One group was excommunicated by the church, leaving the other faction in charge.
Because the matter boiled down to who were truly members of the church, the court wisely washed its hands of the matter, determining this was a religious dispute secular judges have no business adjudicating. This finding conforms to the well-recognized, and long established legal doctrine of church autonomy. That is, the First Amendment prohibits government from interfering with churches on matters of governance, doctrine, membership, and discipline.
Application of the church autonomy doctrine in this case was complicated by the fact that the members lives were completely immersed in the church. Their jobs and where they lived were dictated by their church membership. Normally one’s occupation and residence are civil matters, but in this case, one cannot live or work in the colony unless they are members of the church. So who governs the colony is necessarily a religious issue.
If the court had ruled otherwise, it would inject secular government into the internal workings of a religious entity. This is exactly the type of entanglement the founders sought to avoid when making the religion clauses part of the First Amendment. The South Dakota Supreme Court is to be lauded for their understanding of this foundational principle and respect for the autonomy of religious organizations.
Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts or follow us on Facebook to join the conversation. http://www.facebook.com/SpeakUpChurch.