A federal court says it will not intervene to resolve a dispute over the ownership of a Baptist church in Florida.

Ownership of the church, Eglise Baptiste Bethanie de Ft. Lauderdale, came under dispute after its pastor, the Rev. Usler Auguste, died in 2014. Auguste’s widow, Aida, and the church’s board of directors have been squabbling over who will lead the congregation. One meeting was so contentious that police were summoned.

In September 2019, Aida Auguste and her supporters entered the church while services were under way. They were accompanied by six armed police officers from the Seminole tribe’s police department. They ordered the worshippers out of the facility, changed the locks and seized church records, including its bank accounts. An opposing faction at the church sued.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom of the Southern District of Florida ruled last month that any attempt by the court to resolve the matter would require intervention in church doctrines and thus violate the First Amendment. A legal principle known as the ecclesiastical-abstention doctrine generally prohibits secular government bodies from intervening in internal church affairs.

“[A]ny adjudication of the claims asserted in Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint would violate the First Amendment because it ‘would require judicial intrusion into rules, policies, and decisions which are unmistakably of ecclesiastical cognizance,’” observed the court. “ [T]he foundational issue that must be resolved before addressing the merits of the claims is whether Defendant Auguste had the authority to exclude Plaintiffs from church property as Pastor Auguste’s rightful successor. Questions of church government are fundamentally ecclesiastical in nature.” (Eglise Baptiste Bethanie de Ft. Lauderdale v. Seminole Tribe)

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