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Suppose Jane is a member of a fundamentalist Evangelical church. She violates church doctrine and submits her resignation. At this point, church doctrine calls for her to be shunned by the church congregation and this indeed happens, but the worst thing to happen is that the congregation stops interacting with Jane.

Is this sufficient cause for a court to rule against Jane's former church?

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    What law do you think the church would potentially be guilty of breaking? Are you thinking there may be some law that compels church members to continue interacting with Jane? Jul 18, 2023 at 3:29
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    Are you asking if this could be grounds for a civil rights case if e.g. one of the congregants runs a restaurant and tells Jane they won't serve her? In general people have the freedom to associate with whom they choose, the exception is certain kinds of discrimination in certain public accommodations or employment. Jul 18, 2023 at 3:41
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    For a court to rule against the church, there has to be a valid suit before the court. Is Jane suing the church or is the church suing Jane? On what grounds -- is it related to the shunning itself or to an event that occurred in the context of the shunning? As others have noted, it's difficult to imagine that the shunning itself could provide grounds for a valid suit.
    – phoog
    Jul 18, 2023 at 10:24
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    OP needs to update the question to provide context about what doctrine Jane violated, and also needs to answer questions asked above. In India, social boycott is an offence. In USA, a Mormon appealed excommunication. It causes emotional distress.
    – Nav
    Jul 19, 2023 at 6:23
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    @Nav: Note that the LDS case you cite (second link) was an appeal to the church's internal leadership, not to the secular courts, so it isn't relevant to the question at hand. However the Pew report in your third link is very interesting and cites a number of cases that are right on point - it would be the basis for a great answer. Jul 19, 2023 at 13:15

5 Answers 5

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You don't have to interact with people if you don't want to

If you don't want to talk or otherwise interact with somebody in a personal capacity, you don't have to. Your reasons for doing so are your reasons.

Some of the congregation may have roles that require them to interact with Jane in what I will loosely call an "official" capacity. For example, if one of the congregants is a government employee and government business requires the interaction, they would have to do so.

It gets a little tricky when there is not a clear legal duty to interact. For example, if a congregant is an employee of a company with which Jane has business and who would normally be the person to interact with Jane, they might reasonably claim that they have a religious belief that prevents them from doing so. Anti-discrimination law may require the employer to make reasonable accommodations for that belief, for example, by getting a different employee to interact with Jane.

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See Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Canada St. Mary Cathedral v. Aga, 2021 SCC 22.

In that case, two members of a religious organization were expelled. The Court held that any remedy would have to be found in legal rights such as "rights in property, contract, tort or unjust enrichment ⸺ and statutory causes of action."

In many circumstances, "there [is] no legal right attached to the plaintiff’s membership in his religious congregation" and therefore the courts will have "no jurisdiction to determine whether [they were] properly expelled."

In sum, courts can only intervene in the affairs of a voluntary association to vindicate a legal right, such as a right in property or contract. Membership in a voluntary association is not automatically contractual. Even a written constitution does not suffice. Membership is contractual only where the conditions for contract formation are met, including an objective intention to create legal relations. Such an intention is more likely to exist where property or employment are at stake. It is less likely to exist in religious contexts, where individuals may intend for their mutual obligations to be spiritually but not legally binding. A voluntary association will be constituted by a web of contracts among the members only where the conditions for contract formation are met.

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You have a constitutional right to associate with whom you please

The Supreme court has long held that the 1st amendment right to free speech, assembly, and petition also includes the freedom of association.

This right to association can be on cultural, religious and/or political grounds and the religious grounds are established.

This would ostensibly also include the right to not associate with people who have religious, political or cultural ideals you find abhorrent.

How Free Speech Rights Protect the Freedom to Associate

Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the 'liberty' assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny. It appears from the Court's opinions that the right of association is derivative from the First Amendment guarantees of speech, assembly, and petition, although it has at times been referred to as an independent freedom protected by the First Amendment. The doctrine is a fairly recent construction, the problems associated with it having previously arisen primarily in the context of loyalty-security investigations of Communist Party membership, and these cases having been resolved without giving rise to any separate theory of association.

source - 1 source - 2

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    let's not forget Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Telling a church what to do will be a high hurdle.
    – Tiger Guy
    Jul 18, 2023 at 13:56
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Any law enabling such a tort would violate at least 3 Constitutionally-protected rights in the U.S.

The government is explicitly forbidden by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution from "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. The circumstances under which the government can prohibit either an individual person or a religious organization from exercising the tenets of their religion are quite narrow and this does not approach such a circumstance.

Next up is freedom of expression. This emanates from the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Expression also can only be limited by the government under exceptionally narrow circumstances. Even holding an openly neo-Nazi demonstration through a heavily-Jewish town is considered protected free speech. While there are a few exceptions (for example, slander or incitement,) a church expressing disagreement with a former member's actions by not associating with them doesn't come remotely close to any exception to freedom of expression.

And that 'associating' part brings us to the third reason such a ruling could not be legal: freedom of association. While, unlike freedom of speech and freedom of religious practice, freedom of association isn't explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, courts have ruled that the right to associate or to not associate with others is protected by the U.S. Constitution, especially when that association (or non-association) is expressive in nature.

It's also worth noting that Jane herself is exercising exactly these three rights in deciding to cease certain religious practices, no longer associate with her former church, and express her disagreement with their views. She would literally be suing them for doing the same things that she herself is doing.

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    I may be paraphrasing a bit but voltaire famously said. I may disagree with what you say but I will defend your right to say it to the death.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 19, 2023 at 14:05
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    @NeilMeyer Common miscitation; that wasn't Voltaire himself, it was a comment by a historian in 1906 summing up in her own words Voltaire's thought process regarding an incident in 1758. quoteinvestigator.com/2015/06/01/defend-say
    – Idran
    Jul 19, 2023 at 20:31
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Given Jane submitted her resignation one could presume she wished to stop interacting with members of the church.

Further:

  • The members of the church have a right to associate with whom they please, even if that doesn't please someone else (e.g. Jane).
  • Jane has a right to associate with whom she wishes, but cannot force herself upon someone else.
  • The church has no obligation to protect Jane's 1st amendment rights as it is not the government, and there is a separation between church and state which would prohibit the courts from messing with the church's decision about whom could be a member of its congregation.
  • Jane, as a former member of the church, presumably knew about the church's control over the lives of people who chose to be a member. So the shunning isn't likely a surprise to here.
  • Moreover, she likely knew the consequences when violating the church doctrine, in a church she chose to be in, and one must presume that she consented to whatever the church did.
  • There is no mention of any harm to Jane. So there is no basis for a tort claiming injury or loss. She may be delighted to be rid of them for all we know.
  • Given this was an issue of a church deciding on the standards for its members, I don't think a court would have any standing on which to issue an opinion or ruling. If it did issue a ruling against the church it would most certainly be overturned on appeal.

Jane's only remedy would be to hop into some sack cloth, dust herself with ashes, and appeal to the church for reinstatement, should she desire that, claiming she is penitent and asking for forgiveness, citing scripture that would support her appeal.

Should that fail, I don't see that she has any choice but to accept that those whom she previously associated with now wished to not associate with her.

Should she wish to hang out w/ members of this church, her rights do not trump those of the others, as they have a right to privacy (we assume) and to not be harassed by someone they do not wish to associate with. They have a right to freedom to choose who they hobnob with, and a freedom of religion which precludes a court compelling them to associate with her.

If she pressed her self upon them she may even fall afoul of trespass or anti-stalking or harassment laws.

It is time for Jane to make some new friends.

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  • Legal citations? Jul 20, 2023 at 20:03
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