The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on April 6, 2016, that a parishioner could not sue her former church and pastors for defamation in statements made within church disciplinary proceedings to excommunicate the parishioner from the church. The explosive mix of high-profile issues present in the case obscures a smaller technical point which may prove crucial in a completely different context when some future litigant advances an abstention argument.
In Pfeil v. St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Minnesota Supreme Court concluded a Minnesota trial court must dismiss LaVonne Pfeil’s claims that the pastors of St. Matthews church in Worthington, Minnesota falsely accused her of wrongdoing before the congregation. After tracing the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” back to an 1872 decision by the United States Supreme Court that Kentucky’s courts should have deferred to the Presbyterian General Assembly concerning which individuals to recognize as elders of the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, the Minnesota justices relied heavily on a much more recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, which concluded that the First Amendment prohibits courts from subjecting a church to employment discrimination laws in the context of the church’s decisions concerning the employment of ministers.
Pfeil divided the Minnesota Supreme Court. Three justices joined the majority opinion. Two dissented, arguing that the decision unwisely and unnecessarily creates an opportunity for malicious, purposefully false statements in church discipline proceedings, with no consequences for the perpetrator and no relief for the victim. The dissenters took the view that courts could, without becoming improperly entangled in a religious dispute, “apply neutral principles of law” to decide whether defamation had occurred.
Buried within the Pfeil majority’s discussion of the big, headline-grabbing question – how does the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion apply when members of a religious body bring their dispute into a state’s courts? – is an arcane point of legal procedure. Part II.B of the majority opinion makes a brief detour to “clarify” that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not a jurisdictional bar. A 2002 decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Odenthal v. Minn. Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, had characterized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a limitation on a court’s subject matter jurisdiction. Applying Hosanna-Tabor, Pfeil concluded Odenthal was incorrect in this regard. Subject-matter jurisdiction refers to a court’s power to hear a case. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is not about a court’s power to hear certain cases. Instead, the Minnesota justices concluded without deciding which of the two alternatives was correct that ecclesiastical abstention is either an affirmative defense on the merits (as was at issue in Hosanna-Tabor) or a form of abstention (“a narrow exception to a district court’s obligation to hear the cases that are brought before it”).
What difference does it make?
For one thing, subject-matter jurisdiction is a powerful defense. A court’s lack of subject-matter jurisdiction “can be raised at any time.” Even if a defendant does not realize that the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction until well into the lawsuit, he does not lose the ability to assert this defense. In fact, where subject-matter jurisdiction does not exist, a defendant may not create subject-matter jurisdiction by consent, even if she wants to. By contrast, a defendant may lose the right to assert an ordinary affirmative defense if the affirmative defense is not pleaded in answer to the plaintiff’s complaint.
Also of interest in the Pfeil detour is the Court’s cryptic suggestion that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine may be exactly what its name suggests, a form of “abstention.” Pfeil cites no authority concerning this point other than Gavle v. Little Six, Inc., which was a case involving an entirely different issue of abstention, in the context of overlapping jurisdiction between state and tribal courts. Gavle itself explains that abstention often arises where the same controversy is brought before two different courts at the same time. Neither of these considerations (tribal courts or multiple lawsuits) were present in Pfeil, so the majority opinion’s comment that “abstention can be a useful framework in cases where there are not ‘two competing lawsuits,’” raises the possibility of a general broadening of the abstention doctrine.
Subject-matter jurisdiction, affirmative defenses, and abstention are easy to overlook among the explosion of policy disputes a decision like Pfeil can set off. And it is impossible to predict how these arcana may become important down the road. But procedural hitches can make all the difference.
 Two justices did not participate in deciding the case.