Church Dispute Making Its Way To Michigan Supreme Court


The Michigan Supreme Court is set to hear a case that may test how far “separation of church and state” can go. The case involves multiple lawsuits between a former pastor and a Grand Rapids church over embezzlement charges.

Initially, a Kent County court refused to hear the lawsuits, saying the court system should not interfere in disputes within churches, reports WOOD. Then, in April an appeals court said a judge could rule on the embezzlement charges without referring to “questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity."

“How do we stick handle our way between that which is legal and that which is religious here?” questioned Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young.

“We want churches to exercise their religion in their own way without interference from the government.” Young said during a hearing.

Attorneys representing the pastor said the court doesn’t have to interfere in the church.

"We can look at documents and apply neutral principles without getting into religious issues, then the court can make that kind of decision,” said Jerry Ashford, the pastor’s attorney.

The controversy surrounding court decisions on church affairs comes as a debate over the separation of church and state sweeps the nation. 

On April 7, a California judge ruled that the County of Los Angeles could not keep a Christian cross on its official seal, reports KNBC. The court said the religious symbol violated the “separation of church and state” doctrine. 

“The placement of the cross on the official county seal promotes one religious sect above others and denies the principle that government represents all of the people, not just those who follow a particular faith,” said an American Civil Liberties Union spokesperson regarding the decision. 

The issue of government interference with religion is particularly relevant in the Michigan embezzlement case. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black slammed government interference “when the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief” in a 1961 ruling, reports Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Michigan Supreme Court is set to make a ruling sometime this year.

Sources: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, KNBC, WOOD / Photo Credit: Michigan Capitol via Steve & Christine/Wikimedia Commons

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