The District of Columbia Court of Appeals recently declined to intervene in a religious dispute involving a D.C. nonprofit, overturning a $500 million judgment against its directors. The court held that the fight over the nonprofit’s articles of incorporation and donations to other organizations implicated religious questions that civil courts could not adjudicate because of the First Amendment. The court’s decision is noteworthy not only in light of the high stakes, but also because it reaffirmed the boundaries of judicial authority under the First Amendment, including in the context of less familiar religious movements.

Since the its 1872 decision in Watson v. Jones, the Supreme Court has recognized that the First Amendment circumscribes the role of the courts in deciding religious disputes. As the Court recently reiterated in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the First Amendment guarantees to religious institutions the “power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” In Hosanna-Tabor, this line of cases resulted in the Court’s affirmation of a “ministerial exception,” which preserves a church’s complete autonomy to determine who can act as its ministers.

But the Court has more frequently had to confront disputes over church property and leadership. As the Court explained in Jones v. Wolf, a court may adjudicate such disputes when they turn on “neutral principles of law.” Thus, the Court continued, religious organizations that wish to resort to the courts to settle disputes can specify ahead of time, under neutral, well-established concepts of trust and property law, “what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism.” For example, in Meshel v. Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that it could use neutral principles to enforce an arbitration agreement, even though the arbitral body was a religious entity. By contrast, when a dispute implicates questions of church doctrine, leadership, or polity, the courts lack authority to resolve it. Although this doctrine is sometimes called “ecclesiastical abstention,” it is not discretionary—as Jones explained, the First Amendment “prohibits” any decision by the court.

The Unification Movement, or Unification Church, was founded by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon in 1954. After Rev. Moon suffered declining health and passed away in 2012, a major schism developed in the church, as various family members asserted claims to leadership. Unable to resolve the schism internally, various factions sued in state and federal courts. In 2020, the Second Circuit concluded that the First Amendment prohibited it from deciding whether Rev. Moon’s widow or one of his sons was the rightful leader of the Movement.

In the D.C. case at hand, plaintiffs affiliated with one faction of the church sued UCI—a D.C. nonprofit entrusted with substantial funds—and its board of directors. UCI’s president, another of Rev. Moon’s sons, believes that he is the rightful leader of the Unification Movement, and he took steps to elect directors who shared his vision of the movement’s future. The board then voted to amend UCI’s articles of incorporation and, subsequently, donated a substantial fraction of UCI’s assets to a foundation associated with the board’s vision of the church. Plaintiffs brought suit, arguing that the amendments and donations were inconsistent with UCI’s original purposes and, thus, that the directors had breached their fiduciary duties to the corporation by substantially changing its essential character (among other claims). Plaintiffs argued that UCI was instead required to support their organization, which plaintiffs claimed is the institutional embodiment of the Unification Church. The trial court agreed with Plaintiffs and issued an order removing UCI’s directors, directing that the articles be un-amended, and holding the directors liable for more than $500 million in disputed donations.

UCI and its directors appealed, represented by lawyers with Jones Day and other firms, arguing that the trial court’s order violated the First Amendment by deciding disputed religious questions. They argued that a court could not assess whether modifications to UCI’s articles represented a substantial change without resolving necessarily religious questions about the boundaries and scope of UCI’s religious mission or plaintiffs’ claims about church leadership and polity. Nor could a court decide whether the disputed donations were consistent with UCI’s religious mission without construing that mission.

The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an amicus brief supporting UCI and its directors. The brief drew on two hundred years of American legal history to show that church polity is often bound up with church theology and, therefore, that American constitutional law has developed strong protections for diverse forms of polity, in order to avoid judicial entanglement in church leadership and governance. They argued the D.C. trial court had violated those longstanding protections by determining questions at the heart of the Unification Movement polity—how is the church structured, and who is in charge?

A group of legal scholars—Professors Elizabeth A. Clarke, Robert F. Cochran, Jr., Teresa Collett, Carl H. Esbeck, Richard W. Garnett, John D. Inazu, Douglas Laycock, Michael P. Moreland, Robert J. Pushaw, and David A. Skeel—also filed an amicus brief in support of UCI and its directors. They were represented by Steffen N. Johnson at Wilson Sonsini. The scholars examined American history, reviewing early American resistance to government involvement in religious governance. They explained that many early settlers, like the Quakers, left England precisely to avoid government control of religion. Early American leaders, including Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, repeatedly took the position that the government had no authority or interest in a church’s choice of leadership or governing structure. One by one, states that had established churches disestablished them. The First Amendment enshrined this principle of non-interference in the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, as the Supreme Court has recognized over the past two centuries. The D.C. trial court, they argued, ran afoul of this constitutional tradition when it decided disputed questions about the theology and priorities of the Unification Movement.

A panel of the D.C. Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with appellants and amici and reversed the trial court’s orders, holding that they violated the First Amendment. The court concluded that no “neutral principle” could govern such a “deeply religious” dispute, any more than a court could decide whether the Roman Catholic Church was more faithful than the Eastern Orthodox Church after the Great Schism. Nor could the court assess whether UCI’s donations were faithful to its original articles, which were “steeped in overtly religious language,” without adjudicating “longstanding debates over the direction of the Church.” Plaintiffs’ petition for rehearing en banc was denied.

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