THE CHURCH AND THE INTERNET — 2ND ED

We reported on February 24, 2017 about the very strange case in which a person was baptized by a church but sued the church because the baptism was announced on the church website.  Plaintiff alleged that when he returned to his native country he was identified as a convert and had to kill a captor to escape his own martyrdom.  The Plaintiff claimed he had not consented to membership in the church and the church apparently agreed.  Thus, the Plaintiff claimed he was not subject to the church’s standard practice of announcing baptisms on its website.  Indeed, the Plaintiff alleged someone promised him his baptism would remain private or possibly secret.

The trial court dismissed the case pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.  The Supreme Court of Oklahoma issued an opinion in February 2017 holding publication of the baptism on the internet was protected under the Doctrine.  The February 2017 opinion was withdrawn in Doe v First Presbyterian Church USA, 2017 OK 106 (www.oscn.net).  The opinion issued December 19, 2017 to replace the prior opinion reversed the trial court by holding that there was a question of fact for a jury as to whether Plaintiff was promised baptismal privacy and whether that promise was breached.  The question of whether announcement of the baptism on the internet was shielded by the First Amendment was abandoned by the Supreme Court of Oklahoma.

It is possible the Justices of the Supreme Court of Oklahoma have never served in church leadership positions which were required to assemble or certify a membership list.  Determining whether someone is a member of a church may require only secular records (when they exist).  But, as prior decisions of the Oklahoma Supreme Court, including the opinion under discussion, have expressly acknowledged, churches are “spiritual communities.”  To determine whether someone is a member of a “spiritual community” will often as not require determination of ecclesiastical issues.  In other words, it may not be possible to determine church membership using the same methods by which it might be determined at a country club.  Also, most churches make baptism an integral part of the process to achieve membership.

The Supreme Court of Oklahoma seemed to assume that church membership provides a bright line.  It will often be a fact question because membership is a process in many churches, sometimes involving many steps.  The march of catechumens is not always in a straight line.  The Supreme Court of Oklahoma also seemed to assume that baptism by itself was not an affirmative act of membership sufficient to submit the baptized to church governance.  It seems likely the courts of Oklahoma are about to receive a full education in baptismal doctrines.

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