Although usually the governing documents of a local church or a denomination, or both, instantly resolve the question of whether a local church is, indeed, a member of a denomination and under its ecclesiastical jurisdiction, sometimes it is not clear. Many denominations have humble origins among immigrant communities, the uneducated, and the poor.

In Sacred Heart Knanaya Catholic Community Center Board v St. Thomas Syromalabar Diocese of Chicago, Slip Op., 2019 IL App 2d 180792, the appellate court affirmed summary judgment dismissing the case on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds. The Plaintiff claimed it was not a church at all and not under the jurisdiction of the denomination, in any event. The Plaintiff sued the denomination because the denomination would not authorize a third-party church to celebrate mass at the community center for a special program. The reason for refusal was not reported in the opinion. The denomination provided minimal proof the community center was under its religious jurisdiction. However, it was enough. The community center may have been able to disprove it was part of the denomination, but inadequate legal representation may have waived the right to do so.

Two lessons emerge. The Plaintiff should have engaged counsel experienced in civil litigation. Just because someone is a “lawyer” and has a license to practice does not mean the attorney is a civil case lawyer. (I have avoided the label “trial lawyer” because most civil cases no longer reach trials.) Just because a lawyer is part of the church membership does not make that lawyer qualified to handle a civil case. The other thing the community center board should have done, rather suing for tortious interference with contract and money damages, was to seek a declaratory judgment regarding its lack of affiliation with the denomination. That would likely have required application of neutral principles.

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