A lawsuit against an Oklahoma church for disclosing the conversion and baptism of a former Muslim could lead to secular court incursions into historically—and constitutionally protected—ecclesiastical matters. In reversing its original decision to dismiss the case, the Oklahoma Supreme Court conflated two distinct legal doctrines that establish boundaries of court jurisdiction in church polity, attorneys for the church said.
“John Doe,” as he is known in his complaint, sued First Presbyterian Church of Tulsa, a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, and pastor James Miller in 2014. Doe claims the church broke its promise to keep secret his conversion to Christianity and baptism when it posted the news online. Weeks later, while in his home country of Syria, Doe claims “radical Muslims” who learned about his conversion online, kidnapped, tortured, and attempted to kill him. He escaped and returned to Oklahoma, where he endured multiple surgeries to treat his injuries. Blaming the church for what happened, Doe sued for $75,000.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court initially dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction: The lawsuit dealt with ecclesiastical matters, giving the church autonomy, the justices ruled. Doe appealed last year, and in December the Oklahoma high court reversed its decision, allowing Doe to move forward with his suit.
John Tucker, an attorney for the church, said the justices conflated ministerial exception doctrine with ecclesiastical abstention/church autonomy doctrine: The former acts as a defense to lawsuits, the latter a shield from lawsuits. By mixing the two, the court subjugated the “rules, customs, and traditions of the baptizing church” to the plaintiff’s request.
“Under the substituted opinion, courts have the right to tell churches how they can and cannot report baptisms,” Tucker wrote in a brief asking the court to again reconsider. “Courts would be able to pass judgment on how the good news of a baptism may and may not be published. This position is untenable.” —B.P.