3rd Circuit: Ousted church member may not sue on behalf of church

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

 In Askew v. Trustees of the General Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc., (3d Cir., June 28, 2012), the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals held that plaintiff, a member of a dissident faction in a Church, lost standing to continue a lawsuit charging Church leaders with misappropriation of assets once plaintiff’s Church membership had been terminated by the Church’s religious leader. Joseph Askew filed suit against Bishop Kenneth Shelton in January 2009. In August 2009, Shelton executed a sworn declaration stating that Askew and other dissidents had not been recognized as Church members since 1992 when the split occurred. The court held that Bishop Shelton’s authority to excommunicate members “falls squarely within the realm of matters insulated from civil court review.” The court added that “consistent with the nonentanglement principle,we accept [Shelton’s] pronouncement as conclusive. Any other approach would embroil this Court in a two-decade-long intra-Church battle central to its mission and spiritual identity.” The court went on to hold that once Askew had lost his Church membership, he no longer had standing to assert claims alleging harm to the Church. The court added:

A doctrinally grounded decision made during litigation to insulate questionable church actions from civil court review may indeed raise an inference of fraud or bad faith…. Under those circumstances, the integrity of the judicial system may outweigh First Amendment concerns such that a civil court may inquire into the decision.  But we find no basis for the inference here.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the decision.