Friday, November 6, 2015

State Court and an Excommunication. . .

You can read a news report of the facts of the case (at least as they were reported).  The Court's opinion is in full here.

The Court found:
In concluding that the Pfeils’ claims must be dismissed, we do not  minimize  the concerns  that  brought  them  to  court.  We  recognize  that LaVonne Pfeil,  a  lifelong resident  of  Worthington  and  longstanding  member  of  the  St.  Matthew  congregation, believes that the Church’s statements besmirched her reputation and that of her deceased husband, Henry Pfeil, a grievous injury to the family name.  But the separation of church and  state, a  principle enshrined  in the  Minnesota  and  United  States  Constitutions, prevents a district  court  from  determining  the  merits  of  the  Pfeils’ dispute  with  their former  church.    Our  decision here does  not excuse any defamatory  behavior that  may have occurred in a sacred setting; it merely honors the separation of church and state by avoiding secular intrusion into the heart of religious concerns: who may be a member of the church; what standards of behavior are required of them; and how and when members may be disciplined.

It appears the Court was not unsympathetic to the arguments of the claimant but was constrained by the separation of church and state to prevent them from acting.  Interesting.  Sad.  Situations like this are always sad.  But sometimes they are unavoidable.  I know not the facts here except as they were reported but it is nothing if not sad.


Carl Vehse said...

In the Pfeil case involving the LCMS church, St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Worthington MN, along with two former pastors at the church, the background and the oral arguments made to the Minnesota Supreme Court are also reported in the September 16, 2015, Worthington Daily Globe article, "Minnesota Supreme Court hears Pfeil case."

Pfeil's lawyer claims the challenge is not over the church's process of excommunicating the Pfeils, but what followed after the Pfeils were removed as members of the church, and the subsequent (alleged) slander of the Pfeils.

The challenge, according to the Appellants is that while First Amendment protection covers religious actions and activities within a church body, including excommunication and the reasons for it, there is no First Amendment protection for a church body to defame members of the public at large, which is what the Pfeils were at the time of the alleged slander.

The Missouri Synod submitted an amicus brief to La Vonne Pfeil, et al., vs. St. Matthew Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of Worthington, Nobles County, Minnesota, et al. (No. A14-0605).

Carl Vehse said...

Applicable to the MN SC Pfeil case is the following excerpt from "Church Discipline in the Christian Congregation," CTCR, November, 1985 (pp. 19-20):

"10. What legal considerations should be taken into account by the congregation in its exercise of church discipline?...

"c. The courts may interfere if, in the process of exercising church discipline, members of the congregation slander or libel the member disciplined. Slander or libel can occur if untrue statements about the individual under discipline are made, particularly where the statements are made outside of the church disciplinary process. (Of course, Christians should not engage in such gossip or slander wholly aside from whether it might result in court action.)

"d. Following the exercise of church discipline the congregation should simply make an announcement of a member's expulsion. It is improper to make statements describing in detail the conduct for which a member was expelled or to attempt to hurt the former member in connection with his occupation or job. Such activities could result in legal action.

"In summary, the individuals and the congregation involved in church discipline would be well advised to forego discussions of the person under discipline except as may be essential to the disciplinary process itself. While the courts grant the individuals exercising disciplinary authority the right or privilege to speak to the individual involved and to discuss the matter as needed, the courts will not tolerate malicious or frivolous discussion of a person's character or activities outside of proper congregational channels."

This would appear especially applicable if church discipline and subsequent publicity were based on unsubstantiated rumors rather than documented truth.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine (we go back to 9th grade in a LCMS youth group) is a journalist in the Twin Cities and has been updating me on this case. However, this is a small town story of gossip, "She said, he said, they said" and unless you live there and have talked to all involved, you really cannot conclude who is at fault. Even then, there is no doubt a lot of small town history of real or imagined hurts and slights among the church members.

What makes me smile is that this appears to have started from bad coffee at a funeral. My siblings and I love good coffee - one sister has worked as a barista in a coffee shop - and we have long had a standard for the very worst coffee and that is called "Lutheran Church Basement Coffee". People already don't like each other? Bad coffee just makes it worse. --- Mavis

Carl Vehse said...

"What makes me smile is that this appears to have started from bad coffee at a funeral."

Bad coffee would probably have warranted a prohibition in the Book of Concord, if it weren't for the fact that coffee was not introduced into Europe until after 1582. (Coffeehouses were established in Germany in the 17th century.)

And it was a German Lutheran physician and botanist, Dr. Leonard Rauwolf (1535-1596), educated at the University of Wittenberg, who first observed and wrote about coffee (locally called Chaube) in his travels to the Near East.

See Aigentliche Beschreibung der Raiß inn die Morgenländerin (Leonhart Rauwolf, 1582, p. 102), or the English version, Dr. Leonhart Rauwolf's Travels into the Eastern Countries (translated by Nicholas Staphurst, Rev. John Ray, London, 1738, p. 68).

Carl Vehse said...

Here are some excerpts from the article, "Driven out of her Lutheran church, woman wants a judge to step in":

"Then, in August 2011, the Pfeils were excommunicated....

"The following month, 89 members of the church gathered to rule on the action. At the meeting, Braun read the charges: the Pfeils slandered him and other church leaders, and gossiped about them. They engaged in sinful behavior and prompted others to do so. They refused to repent, leaving the church no alternative to kicking them out.

"Pfeil and her family denied all of those accusations, and asked for details on what was said and who said it. They were told such information was confidential."

The news report of 89 members involved in ruling on the action could be in error. St. Matthew is listed in the LCMS directory in 2011 with over 800 communicant members. It's likely that at least 600 of them are old enough to be voter members. That would make only 15 percent of members gathered to rule on an excommunication.

Carl Vehse said...

Here is the September 9, 2015, Minnesota Supreme Court Video Oral Argument in Pfeil v. St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church et al. (Case No. A140605).
The website also allows the video to be downloaded.

Anonymous said...

Carl -- 89 members were involved in the ruling. You can not dilute their vote by the 600? voting aged members -- every voters meeting has a constitutional requirement by that organization, to determine how many are necessary to be present at the voters meeting for the decisions to be voted and acted upon. Perhaps the quorum is all in attendance or it may require a certain percentage of the voting membership be present. In that same constitution, it will outline the process for removal and what percentage of those in attendance must affirm the excommunication, in all liklihood, the percentage is 100% who are at that voter's meeting must agree on the excommunication. This whole process was revealed by two church reviews as the Pfeils appealed their case to the church which found that all was done according to the book. I do have a relative at this church and I can assure you, this was not over bad coffee.