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Cassell v. Christian Science Board of Directors

February 27, 2012

[martindale.com] by Mark E. Swirbalus

In Cassell v. Christian Science Board of Directors, Case No. 11-P-453, 2012 Mass. App. Unpub. LEXIS 173 (Feb. 15, 2012), a decision issued pursuant to Rule 1:28, the Appeals Court affirmed the probate court’s dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
Plaintiff was excommunicated from the First Church of Christ, Scientist. She filed suit in probate court against members of the church’s board of directors, seeking reinstatement and an affirmative injunction that the board “abide by all terms and conditions of the Governing Documents, including the Deeds of Trust and Church Manual.” Plaintiff argued that probate court was the proper forum for her complaint because Mary Baker Eddy founded the church as a trust, pursuant to a deed of trust, and thus that the board consists of trust fiduciaries.
The probate court disagreed, and the Appeals Court affirmed, holding that Mary Baker Eddy’s deed of trust was for the purpose of conveying land, not to establish judicial policing of church membership. The Court also held that excommunication is a form of internal discipline covered by the “church autonomy doctrine,” which provides that both congregational and hierarchical churches are entitled to autonomy over church disputes touching on matters of doctrine, canon law, policy, discipline and ministerial relationships, and that the First Amendment forbids courts from interfering with a church’s internal governance or the excommunication of its members.

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