Court: Religious freedom applies equally to congregational, hierarchical polities

Court: Religious freedom applies equally to congregational, hierarchical polities

June 30, 2004
Written by Staff Reports

UCC leaders are hailing a May 18 unanimous decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court that sided with the UCC and its ability to oversee ordained ministerial standing, without interference from secular courts.

At issue was the ability of denominations with a more-congregational polity to have the same autonomy over church disputes as denominations with hierarchical forms of governance.

The case involved a local church pastor whose standing had been suspended by an Association's church and ministry committee. The pastor sought to have the committee's decision overturned through secular legal channels.

"Today we hold that constitutional rights of religious freedom apply equally to congregational and hierarchical churches," wrote Justice Francis X. Spina, writing for the court. "ÉWe hold that congregational as well as hierarchical churches are entitled to autonomy over church disputes touching on matters of doctrine, canon law, polity, discipline, and ministerial relationship. É To conclude otherwise would violate fundamental precepts of the First Amendment and the Massachusetts Constitution."

UCC Nationwide Special Counsel, Donald C. Clark Jr., represented the UCC in the case.

In a letter to pastors and congregations, the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, Massachusetts Conference Minister, wrote, "I wanted you to know that our congregational polity has received affirmation and recognition from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. They have determined that we have as much right and reason as hierarchical churches to govern our own ecclesiastical affairs."

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