Written by Don Byrd

This week a First Circuit panel, featuring former Supreme Court Justice David Souter, ruled in a property dispute between two congregations over ownership of a historic synagogue in Rhode Island. The nature of the dispute and the underlying evidence, some of which is more than a hundred years old, is complex – well, complex is probably an understatement. For details on the particulars of the dispute, I recommend this helpful (but still complicated!) Reuters report on the case.

From my perspective as a church-state watcher, however, what most interested and impressed me was the court’s conscious wrestling with how to dive into the dispute without encroaching into matters of religious doctrine. While the lower court “was scrupulous in avoiding any overt reliance on doctrinal precepts,” Souter wrote, “the court’s historical investigation was unavoidably an immersion in the tensions between two congregations that were not doctrinally identical[.]”

His majority opinion, which overturned the lower court’s conclusion, went on to describe the challenge before courts handling such disputes:

In implementing the religion clauses of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has established a regime of limits on judicial involvement in adjudicating disputes between religious entities situated like the parties before us, when competing property claims reflect doctrinal cleavages. What the Court has approved as merely “marginal judicial involvement” by the civil courts in such circumstances, is aimed at avoiding, or at least minimizing, the twin risks presupposed respectively by the Constitution’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses: compromising the degree of religious autonomy guaranteed by the former, and placing government in the position of seeming to endorse the religious positions of the winners, forbidden by the latter. These objectives are summed up in another of the Court’s aspirational phrases, urging resort to a methodology that allows courts, to the extent possible, to decide in ways that avoid “entangl[ing them] in matters of religious controversy,” by relying instead upon the application of “neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes,”

A hallmark of religious liberty is our court system’s refusal to engage in matters of competing religious doctrine out of deference to both religion clauses of the First Amendment. At the same time, the court system must be available to religious entities to resolve certain disputes. Souter notes that there are steps they can take to limit the potential for judicial involvement in religious matters, “including provisions in deeds and corporate charters spelling out reversionary rights or express trust benefits, options available to religious organizations as readily as to their secular counterparts”

In short, how a religious community prepares its establishing documents can go a long way toward minimizing judicial intrusion in the event of a dispute.

In similar news, the South Carolina Supreme Court recently ruled in a lengthy and complicated dispute over ownership of an Episcopal diocese after a split in the church. Religion Clause has more on that case and the outcome, which yielded 5 written opinions by the 5 Supreme Court members.