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 The February 2017 opinion was withdrawn in Doe v First Presbyterian Church USA, 2017 OK 106 (www.oscn.net).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.
Many churches post information about their services, their pastors, and their members. Some post worship bulletins and newsletters. Some of these contain information such as announcements of events. Most churches would not think it represented any sort of risk because most churches consider themselves open to the public and events are open to the public. Churches that have thought about it one way or the other would consider their routine internet postings cloaked in First Amendment free speech protection regardless of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, although a few would consider that applicable as well. Because the web posting was intended for members and other interested persons, most churches would not consider that their posting might be read by villains.
In Doe v The First Presbyterian Church USA of Tulsa, 2017 OK 15, www.oscn.net, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that public announcement on the internet of a baptism was protected under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine (aka “church autonomy doctrine”). The majority opinion reviewed the development in Oklahoma of “church autonomy doctrine.” However, because in the last twenty years there have only been a couple of cases in the Oklahoma state level appellate court, the majority also had to canvass a few of the numerous federal court decisions.
The Plaintiff Doe was a Syrian by birth that immigrated to the United States and submitted to baptism in a public worship service at a Presbyterian church. There is a suggestion in the dissenting opinion the church did not televise the baptism, as it did other parts of its worship service, in recognition that Doe’s “conversion” from Islam to Christianity as evidenced in baptism would make his return to Syria problematic or unsafe.
Doe sued claiming he was captured upon return to Syria, tortured, threatened with execution, and that he escaped by shedding his bonds, grabbing a firearm, and shooting his paternal uncle. He apparently alleged that he was stabbed when he returned to the United States by another relative in retaliation for shooting the uncle.
Neither the majority nor the dissent seemed to view the allegations of the Plaintiff in the broader First Amendment light of freedom of speech. The dissent tried to build an argument that there might have been a privacy expectation that was tortuously violated because the court viewed the baptism as “unusual.” However, the dissent went on to note that historically baptism records were important public records even if in the modern era that is not true outside of church practice. The sub silento point was that baptismal records have always been part of the public record and no rule has ever been enacted that would attempt to limit a church’s’ right to publish its own records. With that point in hand, the dissent did not reach the seemingly obvious conclusion that posting on the internet of a public church record does not infringe on a privacy expectation because there is no such expectation in such records.