The New Year commenced with a step along the path of the development of the law known as the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. Indeed, this development may be an outlier or even a step too far. Because the development is in an unpublished court opinion, it may be cited only for persuasive effect and is not precedential (aka stare decisis). Nevertheless, the opinion is from a United States Court of Appeals and those are always significant, especially in the federal district courts that report to that circuit.
In Myhre v Seventh Day Adventist, Slip Op. (11th Cir. 2018), a retired clergyman (assumed so because he was “defrocked”) retired in 2009 and began collecting retirement benefits. In 2013, an unspecified “theological disagreement” arose. The opportunity for a retiree to initiate a “theological disagreement” would seem non-existent but to a denominational insider this might seem quite normal. In addition to being “defrocked” the Plaintiff was excommunicated. In 2013 the denomination cut off the Plaintiff’s retirement benefits. The retirement plan document stated eligibility continued only so long as the beneficiary remained a “member of good standing.” The Plaintiff was no longer such a member after excommunication. The 11th Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the breach of contract claim because the case would require an inquiry into the meaning of “member of good standing” and the underlying evidence on that subject. Such an inquiry, the trial court reasoned, would be blocked by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The 11th Circuit characterized the dispute as “disciplinary procedure” not appropriate for judicial review.
The argument did not seem to be whether the membership clause was a condition to starting benefits. There did not seem to be a dispute about whether the membership clause requirement was by its own language perpetually applicable after initial eligibility had been determined. It would seem that a court could under the Neutral Principles Doctrine determine if the membership clause was an ongoing condition precedent to continuing to receive benefits. If it was (and it may have been but the opinion was a bit terse), application of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine would make sense.