Preserving Religious Parties’ Right to Sue

Should the statute of limitations be tolled while a denomination follows internal dispute resolution procedures? Expressed another way: Does it violate religious freedom when disputing parties of faith following their mandatory internal process must also file their case in court or lose their chance to pursue a remedy in the civil courts?

There have been many disputes in the U.S. recently between local congregations and their denominations regarding who owns the property where the congregation meets. It’s not unusual for these to end up in court. One recently went through the Michigan court system, and the denomination is asking the U. S. Supreme Court to give them another chance in the state courts.

Defendant Bais Chabad claims the title to the property in West Bloomfield where their congregation is located. Plaintiff Chabad-Lubovitch of Michigan claims all property should be titled in its name. After several years of internal dispute resolution proceedings, Plaintiff filed suit in Michigan’s circuit court. Defendant argued that the statute of limitations had expired; Plaintiff countered that the statute was tolled while the parties tried to resolve this internally. The trial court agreed with the Defendant and dismissed the case.

Plaintiff appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals. That court reversed, holding that mandatory dispute resolution procedures toll the statute of limitations, and that includes exhaustion of “ecclesiastical remedies.” The court referred to this as the doctrine of equitable tolling, noting that the reasons behind statutes of limitations—that plaintiffs not sleep on their rights, or expect defendants to defend stale claims—were not present here, where parties have been litigating this matter vigorously for years.

The Michigan Supreme Court tersely reversed the Court of Appeals, in lieu of granting plaintiffs’ leave to appeal, ordering that “there are no grounds on which to equitably toll the statute of limitations.” (Order 149567, May 20, 2015) So now the plaintiff is petitioning the US Supreme Court to grant cert to establish a First Amendment “church autonomy” exception to statutes of limitations. Peacemaker Ministries supports the petitioner in this case. Requiring parties to file a lawsuit to preserve their legal remedy — including their right to enforce the parties’ agreement — is contrary to the proscription in I Corinthians 6 against suing believers in court. Filing a lawsuit also makes it much more difficult for disputing parties to reconcile.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 29, 2020 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    An update on this case: the U.S. Supreme Court denied cert on May 23, 2016. See an article about this: