Hafner v. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

Decision Date27 August 1985
Docket NumberS 84-737.,No. 84-612,84-612
Citation616 F. Supp. 735
PartiesJacqueline HAFNER, Plaintiff, v. The LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD; Ontario District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Albin Stanfel; Konstantine Hahn; Gerald Scholz; Dr. Ralph Bohlman; Matthias Krey, as Chairman of the Department of Missions, Defendants. Milton HAFNER, Plaintiff, v. The LUTHERAN CHURCH-MISSOURI SYNOD; Ontario District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Albin Stanfel; and Ralph Bohlman, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Indiana

Milton Hafner, Middlebury, Ind., for plaintiffs.

Gregory L. Kelly, Lynn C. Tyler, Douglas K. Dieterly, South Bend, Ind., Robert P. Stoner, Valparaiso, Ind., for defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

ALLEN SHARP, Chief Judge.

Milton Hafner is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and is married to Jacqueline Hafner. Milton Hafner is also a duly licensed attorney at law. The complaint of Jacqueline Hafner was filed October 3, 1984 and the complaint of Milton Hafner was filed on December 10, 1984. Both complaints portend to invoke the jurisdiction of this court on the basis of diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1332 and 1441. The allegations of the complaints in each case are basically the same except that Jacqueline Hafner alleges the status of a third party beneficiary in the contract to which her husband, Milton Hafner, was a party. Milton Hafner alleges that he became ill while he was a pastor in the Ontario District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and became disabled. He further alleges that Article III, Section 10 of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod placed a duty upon the Ontario defendants to provide for his welfare and that the Ontario defendants failed to discharge this duty. It is further alleged that Article III, Section 10 of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod did not become effective until January 23, 1980. Milton Hafner's ministry in the Ontario District lasted until the middle of 1980 at which time he resigned as the pastor of the Mount Olive Lutheran Church in London, Ontario. He continued to work for the Ontario District until the end of 1980. During the entire period between 1976 and end of 1980 Milton Hafner and his wife were residents of Ontario, Canada. He also received treatment for his condition at the Homewood Sanitarium in Guelph, Ontaria, Canada.

Albin J. Stanfel has been President of the Ontario District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod since 1972 and has never been a citizen or resident of the State of Indiana although he is a citizen of the United States of America. Albin J. Stanfel has visited Indiana on several occasions in his capacity as an officer in the Ontario District. Between 1976 and 1981 Stanfel attended meetings in Fort Wayne, Indiana on four or five times per year as an officer of the Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary located in St. Catharines, Ontario. Each meeting lasted approximately a day and a half and since 1981 his trips to Indiana as such an officer have been less frequent. Stanfel attended a meeting at the office of Dr. Elwood Zimmermann, President of the Indiana District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Snyod in Fort Wayne, Indiana on January 26, 1984 in an attempt to deal with the claims and controversies that are reflected in the two lawsuits now before this court. Stanfel has also corresponded with Milton Hafner and others in Indiana on four or five occasions with regard to Hafner's moving expenses and continued status as a pastor as well as with regard to matters unrelated to the present case. Stanfel owns no real or personal property located in the State of Indiana. Defendants Stanfel, Gerald Scholz, Konstantine Hahn have been at all times during the pendency of this case and for some considerable time prior thereto residents of Canada.

All of the defendants in this case raise a fundamental constitutional challenge to the subject matter jurisdiction of this court based upon the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and the interpretation thereof by the Supreme Court of the United States, and indeed by this judge in a case decided in the Court of Appeals of the State of Indiana. These defendants bottom the challenge to the subject matter jurisdiction on the most recent relevant statement on that subject as found in the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 96 S.Ct. 2372, 49 L.Ed.2d 151 (1976). In that case the majority stated:

"The First Amendment severly circumscribed the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes. First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice. If civil courts undertake to resolve such controversies in order to adjudicate the property dispute, the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern. ... The First Amendment therefore commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." This principle applies with equal force to church disputes over church policy and church administration. 426 U.S. 709-10, 96 S.Ct. 2380-81.

The majority decision in the Serbian Eastern Orthodox case parallels and is consistent with the earlier decision of the Court in Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 (1969). It is also to be noted that this judge writing for another court in Draskovich v. Pasalich, 151 Ind. App. 397, 280 N.E.2d 69 (1972) cert. denied, 414 U.S. 976, 94 S.Ct. 291, 38 L.Ed.2d 219 (1974)1 dealt with the Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church case in a fashion consistent with the Supreme Court's decision in the Serbian Eastern Orthdox Diocese case.

In this case the plaintiffs are asking this court to interpret Article III, Section 10 of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The relevant provision provides:

The Synod, under Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, shall —
10. Aid in providing for the welfare of pastors, teachers and other church workers, and their families in the event of illness, disability, retirement, special need, or death.

There is some divergence of views between the plaintiffs and the defendants as to the duties that may be imposed upon the defendants under the aforesaid provisions of that church constitution.

If the plaintiffs are correct it will become the function of this court to interpret that provision of that church constitution. Such an inquiry is the kind of inquiry that was requested of and rejected by the Supreme Court of the United States in the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese case and in the Court of Appeals in Indiana in the Draskovich case. A superficial and cursory examination of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod demonstrates beyond question that it is basically and fundamentally a religious doctrine. Indeed, it is the organic document of that church. It includes multiple citations to the Scriptures and a confession of faith.

The progeny of the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese is relevant. In Kaufmann v. Sheehan, 707 F.2d 355 (8th Cir.1983), a priest, in the Roman Catholic Church brought an action against an archbishop of that church for defamation on the basis of the disclosure of a psychiatrist's report by the archbishop about the priest. A district court held that the defamation claim was barred by the statute of limitations and the priest sought to amend his complaint to allege a violation of due process. The district court, however, denied the motion for leave to amend and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed stating:

The allegations of combination, conspiracy, and concerted course of action contained in the proposed amended complaint might arguably state a claim for fraud or collusion, particularly when viewed under the Haines v. Kerner 404 U.S. 519, 92 S.Ct. 594, 30 L.Ed.2d 652 (1974) standard of liberal construction for pro se pleadings. Significantly Milivojevich did not foreclose "`marginal civil court review' under the rubrics of `fraud' or `collusion' when church tribunals act in bad faith for secular purposes." In the instant case, however, Kaufmann's claims relate to his status and employment as a priest, and possibly to other matters of concern with the church and its hierarchy, and go to the heart of internal church discipline, faith, and church organization, all involved with ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law.... In spite of Kaufmann's argument, the proposed amendments to the complaint deal only with matters of religion and there is no allegation that we can construe in any other light. 707 F.2d at 358-59. (emphasis added).

In this case the plaintiff's claim relates to his status and employment as a pastor and to matters of concern with the church and its ecclesiastical hierarchy. Indeed, Count VI of the plaintiff Milton Hafner's complaint alleges that Roy Knoll as Executive Secretary of the Ontario District, exceeded his authority apparently as defined by the Constitution of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Although decided before the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese but after the Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church case, the case of McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.1972) is relevant progeny of that 1969 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. In McClure, a former ordained minister of the Salvation Army brought suit alleging that she had been a victim of discriminatory employment practices in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In affirming the district court's dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court of...

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