Ecclesiastical abstention defense not ground for removing case to federal court

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Coffey v. Hays, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 656 (CD IL, Jan. 3, 2013), an Illinois federal district court adopted a magistrate’s recommendation (2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183527, Sept. 6, 2012) and remanded an internal church dispute to state court.  Plaintiff Terrance Coffey sued Rev. R.L. Hays and New Life Apostolic Church in state court seeking reinstatement after he and others were excommunicated by Hays.  Coffey alleged that Hays exceeded his authority as temporary pastor when he imposed the excommunication without approval from the Church’s members or trustees. Defendants removed the lawsuit to federal court alleging that the 1st Amendment precludes civil courts from exercising jurisdiction in this kind of ecclesiastical dispute.  The court held that the plaintiff’s complaint must raise a federal question in order for the case to be removed. Here the only federal questions were constitutional issues raised by defendants as a defense.