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BlogsPublications | June 30, 2017
3 minute read

MSC: The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not limit Courts’ subject matter jurisdiction

In Winkler v. Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., No. 152889, the Michigan Supreme Court held that though the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine (the “Doctrine”) does not allow a court to substitute its opinion for that of a religious entity on matters that are ecclesiastical in nature, it does not divest a court of jurisdiction over claims as a whole just because they involve an ecclesiastical question.

Bettina Winkler (“Winkler”) brought a claim in circuit court alleging that Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc. (“Marist Fathers”) denied Winkler admission to its high school because of her learning disability, dyslexia, in violation the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act ("PWDCRA"). Marist Fathers’ high school is a school that is parochial in nature, and in Dlaikan v. Rodbeen, 206 Mich App 591 (1994) the Court of Appeals had applied the Doctrine to conclude that a circuit court has no subject matter jurisdiction over a challenge to the admissions decisions of a parochial school. As such, Marist Fathers brought a motion for summary disposition to dismiss the claim pursuant to the holding of that case. The Circuit Court denied Marist Fathers’ motion for summary disposition, but the Court of Appeals awarded summary disposition in accordance with Dlaikan.

On appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court determined that Dlaikan and the Court of Appeals had characterized the Doctrine incorrectly. It determined that rather than eliminating a court’s jurisdiction altogether, a proper understanding of the Doctrine is that it merely affects how a court exercises its jurisdiction over a claim involving an ecclesiastical question. This decision was informed by the origins of the Doctrine, which arises from the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the recognition that true religious liberty would not allow courts to enter into consideration of religious doctrines or practice. The Doctrine merely required the courts to abstain from resolving certain specific issues if resolving those issues required them to consider certain ecclesiastical questions. The Doctrine, however, did not seek to deprive courts of the ability to “exercise judicial power over” any given “class of cases” in which the courts have subject matter jurisdiction.

The MSC then when on to discuss whether the court could resolve the plaintiff’s PWDCRA claim without passing judgment on ecclesiastical matters, but declined to make a decision on the matter at this time. The MSC reasoned that it is for the circuit court to determine, in the first instance, whether resolving the matter would require resolving an ecclesiastical question. The circuit court previously determined that no such questions need to be resolved, and therefore that question is to be left to the Court of Appeals, which has not yet considered the issue given its dismissal pursuant to Dlaikan.

Due to the above decisions, the MSC reversed the COA decision and remanded the case for further proceedings.