PHILADELPHIA — A lot of disputes wind up being settled by the courts but a church members excommunication will not be one of them, a federal appeals court panel ruled Thursday.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit by Joseph Askew against Bishop Kenneth Shelton and the trustees of the General Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith Inc.
"The Church entrusts the General Overseer with power to decide when it is in the best interest of the congregation to terminate an individual's membership," wrote U.S. Circuit Judge Michael A. Chagares. "Determining when excommunication is necessary ... undoubtedly involves a complex balancing of spiritual and pragmatic considerations, all properly left to the highest church authority, not civil courts."
Chagares added that "Any other approach would embroil this Court in a two-decade-long intra-Church battle central to its mission and spiritual identity."
Askew filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia in 2009 in the latest round of a dispute between factions of the Shelton family for control of the South Philadelphia congregation founded in 1919 by Sherrod C. Johnson.
When Johnson died in 1961, control of the church passed to Bishop Shelton's father, S. McDowell Shelton. When Shelton died in 1991, a fight over control of the prosperous church erupted between Kenneth Shelton and his brother Roddy Shelton.
The dispute resulted in schism in 1992 in which the followers of the Shelton brothers went their separate ways and launched years of litigation. Askew, an adherent of Roddy Shelton's sect, filed suit in 2009 accusing Kenneth Shelton and his followers of looting the church's treasury for personal gain and asking for the imposition of a trusteeship.
U.S. District Judge Steward Dalzell dismissed Askew's lawsuit based on Kenneth Shelton's statement that Askew and all of his brother's followers had been excommunicated in 1992. Thus, Askew had no standing to interfere in the internal workings of a church to which he did not belong.
Chagares wrote that intervening in the fractious congregation's internal rulings on membership and doctrine would violate the First Amendment's Religion Clauses.
Just this year, Chagares noted, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle in a case involving the Lutheran Church.
"Civil court review of doctrinal matters inhibits free exercise of religion and usurps the power of religious authorities to resolve intrachurch matters purely of ecclesiastical concern," Chagares added. "And it improperly cloaks the State with authority to intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrinal beliefs."
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