It is rare to get any look inside ecclesiastical arbitration forums because, like nearly all arbitration forums, they are private and not public. Some church forums have clearly defined rules of procedure and others are a bit more spontaneous. The arbitrators may or may not have any training in the rules of the forum or arbitration in general. About the only safeguard for the rights of the parties in most church arbitration forums is that arbitrators almost invariably try to do the right thing.
In Garcia v Church of Scientology, Order, (USDC, MD Fla., Tampa Div. 2017), the Plaintiff sought certain safeguards. The Plaintiff wanted a disclosure by the arbitrators that there were no ex parte contacts with the church about the case. The Court held that the Plaintiffs provided no authority indicating the Court had jurisdiction to order such a disclosure. The Plaintiff wanted the hearing transcribed by a court reporter and a ruling from the Court that certain rules of evidence would not apply. The Court also held no authority was submitted indicating the Court had the power to order such attributes. The Plaintiff also argued the church waived the arbitration agreement between the parties but the Court swept it aside in one sentence because the Court held there was no evidence of waiver submitted. The Court also concluded that the Free Exercise Clause blocked the Court from “resolving internal disputes” regarding religious doctrine.
The Order was very brief and not a full opinion thus commentary is necessarily limited. Nevertheless, the arbitration clause was in an agreement the Plaintiff signed when they joined the church according to the Court and may also have been mandated by the controlling denominational documents. The United States Arbitration Act, 9 USC §1, et. seq., apparently could be invoked to enforce the church membership contract containing the arbitration agreement. While reporting that seeming holding, one has to wonder if the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine would allow a court to enforce an arbitration clause. But, an arbitration clause is a creature of contract and neutral principles would probably accommodate enforcement, even if the arbitration was intended to rule upon a religious dispute. While the Court did not describe the procedural rules of the arbitral forum, it remains to be ruled upon whether substantive and procedural due process challenges could be made if the dispute was economic rather than ecclesiastical.