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
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.
Trustees of Philadelphia Baptist Association v. Hart’s Executors (1819) was
designed to keep courts out of the business of deciding matters of internal
Watson v. Jones (1871) said the Court would resolve church property
disputes on a basis other than church doctrine, furthering the goals of the
In Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton (2017), church-related
nonprofits argued they were exempt from ERISA pension rules under First
Amendment church-state separation.
Terrett v. Taylor (1815) did not cite the First Amendment because it did
not apply to states at the time, but it was one of the most important
church-state cases in the 1800s.
Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976) ruled that the
First Amendment prevented the state from becoming entangled in hierarchical