Church Property and Governance
Courts have sometimes been called upon to consider religious freedom rights under the First Amendment in settling disputes over church property and governance.
Following is a list of Supreme Court cases involving church property and governance and First Amendment rights and concepts.
The Supreme Court in July 2020 upheld the termination of two teachers in
Catholic elementary schools in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v.
Vorissey-Berru, saying the First Amendment’s freedom of religion prevented
the government from interfering in church governance matters.
Although church and state institutions operate separately under the First
Amendment, government has intervened on internal church matters such as in
Smith v. Swormstedt (1853).
Baker v. Fales (Mass. Supreme Court, 1820) illustrates some of the problems
that states with established churches faced prior to their abolition in
Trustees of Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart’s Executors (1819) was
designed to keep courts out of the business of deciding matters of internal
The Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal in which a Virginia church
argued that the government could not determine who was a minister or not in
denying the church a tax exemption for a minister residence.
Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC (2012) was the first time the Court used a
“ministerial exception” as First Amendment basis for rejecting an
employment discrimination suit.
In Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral (1952), the Supreme Court ruled that
a New York law exercised unconstitutional legislative interference in the
freedom of religion.
In 1890, the Court ruled that Congress could dissolve the Mormon church
because of its practice of polygamy. That action is now considered a clear
violation of the First Amendment.
In Maryland and Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God
at Sharpsburg (1970) affirmed that in settling church disputes, courts do
not raise First Amendment concerns.
Municipality of Ponce v. Roman Catholic Apostolic Church in Porto Rico
(1908) does not directly mention the First Amendment, but it illuminates
the establishment clause.