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Church Autonomy: One of the Most Important Legal Doctrines You May Not Have Heard About

church autonomy

For a church or house of worship to truly flourish, it needs to maintain independence from government control in certain fundamental areas. This is vital not only for its thriving but also for the flourishing of religious freedom throughout our country. There is a legal term for this idea: church autonomy. 

But what exactly is church autonomy and why is it important? Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) recently released a helpful video discussing the topic

A major component of religious freedom involves the idea that individuals aren’t the only ones who enjoy the right to exercise their faith, churches and other houses of worship do too. The Constitution explicitly protects these entities from government interference in their “ecclesiastical matters.” Because of the doctrine of church autonomy, a church is free to carry out its mission according to its deeply held religious beliefs and convictions. 

It’s important for church leaders to understand the essence of church autonomy and the legal rights that stem from it. In conjunction with the video mentioned above, ADF also released a guide for church leaders on this topic to explore the contours of this important, longstanding legal doctrine. 

The Scope of Church Autonomy

According to the church autonomy doctrine—which has been expanded, refined, and clarified over the years—there are four key areas where the government has no right to interfere. Let’s briefly take a look at these areas. 

Issues of doctrine

Places of worship can determine for themselves what they believe and how they apply those beliefs. The government does not have a right to get involved in these matters. 

For instance, if a case is brought before a court and it involves matters of religious doctrine or the significance of church doctrine to issues of faith, the church autonomy doctrine prohibits courts from getting involved. America’s founders intentionally created a system of government that prevents government officials from entangling themselves in church matters, such as doctrinal disputes. When these issues arise, they are always left for houses of worship to determine for themselves, not the government.

Determination of church polity.

When a church determines its polity, this means the church can decide how it is governed and structured as an organization. Does a church have a deacon board? How many times during the year does the congregation gather to discuss church business as a group? Is there voting involved? These are the types of things the government is absolutely prohibited from interfering with.

Relationships with ministers.

The church autonomy doctrine also protects a house of worship’s ability to select, credential, promote, discipline, and appoint ministers (or any teachers and leaders of the faith). This means houses of worship have the right to not only hire or fire their own ministers, but also determine the employment policies that their ministers must abide by. Again, all of this is done without interference from the government. 

There is a solid legal precedent upholding this principle which is referred to as the ministerial exception. This means that when a position is ministerial in nature —meaning the employee leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith—religious organizations have the freedom to make employment decisions based on their beliefs.

Affiliation with church members.

The government can’t tell a church what church membership should or will entail. Houses of worship have the freedom to determine how someone can become a member and the standards members will be held to. This means it creates space for houses of worship to determine not only what admission to membership looks like, but also the freedom to define measures of discipline for its members. 

Best Practices for Your Church

Churches enjoy ecclesiastical autonomy under the law, and this is something Americans should celebrate. Allowing houses of worship to abide by their convictions without undue interference from the government is good for both churches and for society. While a church’s ecclesiastical autonomy isn’t dependent on legal documents – such as bylaws, a constitution, employment documents, facility use policy, and others – having properly prepared documents can strengthen your church’s religious liberty protections. 

Well-written governing documents that are consistently applied will help provide legal protection by clarifying your church’s sincerely held beliefs on important matters.

At Alliance Defending Freedom, we’re eager to help you navigate the religious freedom landscape. This includes the area of church autonomy. If you or your church has questions about church autonomy, governing documents, or First Amendment rights in general, you can obtain access to helpful resources and legal counsel through ADF Church Alliance, an affordable legal membership program Alliance Defending Freedom created to serve churches. 

It’s apparent that church autonomy is vitally important for multiple reasons. Primarily because it secures freedom: freedom for churches to define for themselves what they believe, how they’ll be organized, who they hire for ministerial roles, and how to best engage with their congregations. When there’s freedom in these matters, the Church—and the Gospel it promotes and preaches—has a chance to thrive and transform lives. 

And that is something we can all support.