“DISFELLOWSHIPPING” LEGALITIES

I am not sure “disfellowshipping” is actually a word but I have seen it in various church writings over the years.  It seems to be the termination of church membership and exclusion from the church property in the traditions that use it.  It seems to be a step down from excommunication which in some traditions at times was thought to be a sure fire damnation.  Also, disfellowshipping seems to be used in both a temporary mode and a permanent mode.  Whether “disfellowshipping” is a good idea or a bad one depends on the view taken of I Corinthians 5 and other similar passages.  That is outside the scope of this blog and this post.

In Campbell v Shiloh Baptist Church, Slip Op. 2017 WL 1434249 (Sup. Conn. 2017), a trial court was confronted with the legal ramifications.  The Plaintiff’s church membership had been revoked by a congregational vote in a congregational church (although on this topic it might not have mattered).  The Plaintiff sued to enjoin the church from revoking his membership in the church.  Interesting, too, was that the church’s Board of Deacons meeting authorizing the congregational meeting and vote on membership revocation was preserved in an audio recording.  Also interesting was that the church took the precaution of video recording the congregational meeting at which the expulsion vote was taken.  The Plaintiff alleged “procedural irregularities and inequities” in the congregational vote.  The audio recording and video recording was not surprising because this was the second time the Court ruled upon Plaintiff’s quest for reinstatement.  In the first case, and quoted in this opinion, the Court held its inquiry was limited, “as stated in this court’s earlier decision … a court may inquire whether the act of expulsion was in fact the act of the religious organization.”  63 Conn. L. Rptr. 531.  The Court determined the expulsion was the act of the Defendant church and dismissed the Plaintiff’s case.  The Court would not undertake “policing of a religious organization’s compliance with its internal procedures.”

This opinion is a reasonable blueprint for the procedure of “disfellowshipping.”  Few churches ever have to do this but churches with a reasonable set of bylaws, reasonable leadership, the appropriate mechanism, be it a board or the entire congregation, and reasonable documentation of the vote of either or both will not leave an opening for legal process.  In churches where the power is vested in the hierarchy, and the process is settled, the result should be legally impenetrable.  For churches where the power is not specified in bylaws, typically congregational churches, the congregational vote is the only mechanism.

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