Most of the “excommunications” in court opinions we have reported were not actionable in a court. The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine precluded the court from considering the issue in isolation. Only if there was a legitimate dispute based on church governing documents about who had a right to the keys to the building might the issue of membership termination be impacted though not considered.
In Tharp v Hillcrest Baptist Church, 2022 Ohio 4695 (Ohio App. 2022), the trial court granted summary judgment to the defendant church. The Plaintiff was confronted by the church pastor about an allegation of sexual misconduct brought by another member. The pastor was told that the other member saw Plaintiff and allegedly identified him as the person that molested him thirty years earlier. The Plaintiff admitted the factual basis of the allegation but denied wrongdoing. The Plaintiff repeated the admission in a deposition. The church expelled the Plaintiff from membership. The Pastor allegedly advised the congregation of the expulsion and that it was based in part on the opinion of an “expert” consulted by the Pastor. The “expert” allegedly opined the Plaintiff had an “incurable illness” and his volunteer work in the youth ministry “amounted to grooming children.” The Plaintiff’s defamation claim was dismissed because the Pastor had “qualified immunity,” arising from a duty to speak as to “church interests” in the report to the congregation, as well as from the general duty to protect children. The court held “church discipline” was “beyond the scope of review by a secular tribunal.” The claims of molestation did not appear in a background check and the Plaintiff allegedly failed to disclose them while applying to volunteer in youth ministry. The “confrontation” by the Pastor was not in the course of confessional or penitent communication.
The church and the Pastor seemed to move resolutely from the original notice by the other member, to confrontation, and then to expulsion. The lawsuit provided the opportunity to take a deposition. This seemingly resolute step at a time approach without hesitation upon confirmation, from the confrontation and the notification by the other member, made the outcome virtually certain. Churches that dither, wring their hands, or try without professional guidance for “reclamation” and unverified “repentance” end up with claims more costly or difficult to defend.