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).
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.
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
Baker v. Nachtrieb (1856) does not mention the First Amendment, but it
furthered religious free exercise by sustaining an agreement between a
religious society and its members.
The Supreme Court ruling in Beatty v. Kurtz (1853) is an example of
favoring church rights despite the First Amendment’s clause against
establishment of religion.
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 Jones v. Wolf, 443 (1979), the Court ruled that, under the First
Amendment, a state could resolve church property disputes by applying
neutral principles of law.