State high court rules it has no power to decide disputes within religious group

Tuesday, June 8, 1999

South Dakota’s high court has ruled that the First Amendment bars it from presiding over a dispute within a religious colony.

In 1992 a dispute arose in the Tschetter Colony of Hutterites near Pierre, S.D. The dispute centered on a split between two of the church’s leaders. The Rev. Jacob Kleinsasser was accused of financial improprieties and was voted out by the Conference of the Church and replaced with the Rev. Joseph Wipf. Of the 63 Hutterite colonies in the Dakotas and Minnesota, all but five repudiated the leadership of Kleinsasser.

The Hutterite Church traces its roots to the 1500s, when it was founded in Germany by Jacob Hutter, a martyr for his faith. The Hutterite Church practices a communal way of life that it bases on chapters of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. All individual labor and services are for the sole benefit of the colony and its church. The colony provides members with all necessities of life, including food, clothing, shelter and medical care.

At the time of the schism, the Tschetter Colony was under the religious leadership of a Kleinsasser sympathizer. The Rev. Tom Decker refused to give Holy Communion or baptize members of the colony who no longer followed Kleinsasser. The majority of the Tschetter Colony, however, eventually supported the church’s new leadership under Wipf. In 1995 Decker and the minority of supporters of Kleinsasser were expelled from the colony by a majority vote. To encourage Kleinsasser backers to leave the colony, Wipf supporters shut off their utilities.

Kleinsasser’s followers then sued in state court, arguing interference with property rights, oppression of corporate minority members, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The South Dakota Supreme Court on May 26 upheld a lower court decision that ruled it had no jurisdiction to decide the religious dispute.

The First Amendment and the South Dakota Constitution “preclude civil courts from entertaining religious disputes over doctrine, leaving adjudication of those issues to ecclesiastical tribunals of the appropriate church,” wrote Justice David Gilbertson for the majority in Decker v. Tschetter. “The fact that a portion of the dispute involves property claims does not preclude this constitutional application and protection.”

Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, Gilbertson noted that even when “possession or ownership of church property is disputed in a civil court ‘there is substantial danger that the State will become entangled in essentially religious controversies or intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrinal beliefs.’”

Before the state high court, attorneys for the minority faction argued that the minority’s property rights, among others, were violated by the majority members of the church and that only the judiciary could redress those grievances.

Gilbertson, however, concluded that state law could not solve the disputes within the Hutterite colony.

“The record indicates there is no separation of religious life from a secular life in a Hutterite colony because there is not separate secular life,” Gilbertson wrote. “The colony is run and its members, whether the followers of Rev. Kleinsasser or Rev. Wipf, all conduct their lives on religious absolutes based on the Bible and the Ten Commandments. There are no separate secular shades of gray. We are not ecclesiastical jurists of the Hutterite faith and have no constitutional basis to interfere with this religious dispute. If there is an earthly forum for adjudication of Plaintiff’s allegations, it is not the secular courts of this state.”