Religion Cases in Court

Apr 01, 2011

American religious institutions have been at the center of many legal controversies in recent years. The Roman Catholic Church, for instance, has been fighting a very public and contentious legal battle over whether it can be held accountable for employing priests who sexually abuse minors. The Episcopal Church also has been caught up in a series of legal disputes, most of them over the ownership of church property.

These and related lawsuits raise complex constitutional questions that have been troubling American courts for more than a century: Do the First Amendment's religion clauses -- which guarantee religious liberty and prohibit all laws "respecting the establishment of religion" -- bestow a unique legal status on religious organizations that puts some of their decisions and actions beyond the reach of civil laws? To put it another way, are legal disputes involving churches and other religious institutions constitutionally different from those involving their secular counterparts, and if so, how?1

These questions have been raised in four different types of court cases -- property disputes, employment of clergy, treatment or discipline of members, and misconduct by employees of religious organizations.

Read the full report, Churches in Court, on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's Web site.

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