Church Autonomy: One of the Most Important Legal Doctrines You May Not Have Heard About
For a church or house of worship to truly flourish, it needs to maintain independence from government control in certain fundamental areas. This is vital not only for its thriving but also for the flourishing of religious freedom throughout our country. There is a legal term for this idea: church autonomy.
This was the basis of the US Supreme Court Case Watson v. Jones, an 1871 ase is often cited as the basis for the doctrine in the United States, and grounds the doctrine in the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. However, is this what the Constitution really states?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Note that the First Amendment mentions that Congress shall make no law. It never mentioned that the US Supreme Court should make no decision because according to Article III of the Constitution- the Supreme Court never had the power to do judicial review. This power was claimed by the Court in the 1803 case Marbury v Madison. Here, Chief Justice Marshall ruled that the Court had powers that were not given to it in the Constitution nor by Congress. The only probably was that most people may not not know the rest of the story. Justice Marshall in Feb and March of 1801 was both the Secretary of State and Chief Justice. It was he that signed those commissions but failed to file the forms which caused Marbury and the other plaintiffs not to get their positions. Then after not getting their jobs, they filed in his court to get their jobs back. John Marshall should not have heard that case and he should not have made a ruling outside of the powers granted to the Court under the Constitution.
Marbury V Madison proves that the Court doesn’t have to follow the Constitution. Therefore, I ask you today, brothers and sisters, do we really have independence from the government interference into our religion? Do we?
Back in mid October of 2014, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, began issuing subpoenas that demanded the sermons of pastors and priests who have spoken on the topic of homosexuality, gender identity, or Parker herself. Pastors who do not comply may be held in contempt of court.
We are taught that a major component of religious freedom involves the idea that individuals aren’t the only ones who enjoy the right to exercise their faith, churches and other houses of worship do too. The Constitution explicitly protects these entities from government interference in their “ecclesiastical matters.” Because of the doctrine of church autonomy, a church is free to carry out its mission according to its deeply held religious beliefs and convictions.
It’s important for church leaders to understand the essence of church autonomy and the legal rights that stem from it. However, the first amendment does not mention anything about that at all.
The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
We are a free country but we will not remain free very long if we depend on our government’s interpretation of our rights. We do not need the government to tell us what to believe or not to believe about God. This can only be done if we go back to the original safeguard of our rights- the Constitution and its amendments and stay out of the courts with it.