Denominational Drama: N.D. Couple Sues Church For Viewpoint Discrimination

A Kindred, N.D., couple claims their former church discriminated against them for their conservative views on gay rights. Ray and Joan Grabanski have sued Norman Evangelical Lutheran Church, its pastor and several congregants and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) over the alleged discrimination.                                     

According to WDAY-TV, a local ABC affiliate, the Grabanskis also say they were defamed and subjected to “public ridicule, scorn, intimidation, isolation” after they objected to the church’s decision to hire an openly gay minister. They claim that church leaders told Joan Grabanski to stop volunteering as a Sunday School teacher and called the couple “a cancer.” They are seeking $50,000 in damages.

“In fact, we’ve been threatened if we didn’t leave. They’d try to remove us as troublemakers,” Ray Grabanski told the Fargo Forum. He said he’s filing the suit because the church should accept his viewpoint. “‘All are welcome.’ That’s the public statement, but what happens in reality is they hire attorneys to trespass the Grabanskis out of the church,” Ray told press.

But the church didn’t oust the couple just for their doctrinal views. The Grabanskis met repeatedly with church leadership in an attempt to block the hire, and Ray personally approached reporters at WDAY and elsewhere to convince them to cover a church meeting on the matter.

The couple shouldn’t have been shocked by the church’s hire. Its parent denomination, the ELCA, doesn’t forbid the ordination of LGBT ministers; instead, it leaves the decision to individual congregations.

That’s in contrast to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), which believes that homosexuality is a sin.  There are 88 LCMS congregations in N.D. alone. The Grabanskis had plenty of options if they wanted to attend a conservative Lutheran church.

Instead, they want the courts to force their more liberal church to take them back.

Ray Grabanski said he plans to return to the church “as soon as it’s over,” referring to the lawsuit, which he seems to think he will win. He asserted, “I can go in that church because I am a member” and insisted that church leaders “can’t get me out as a troublemaker because I haven’t raised any trouble.”  

I hate to break it to you, Ray, but a church can kick you out for just about any reason. Whether you’ve made trouble or not, a church is under no legal obligation to extend membership to anyone.

Church leaders understand this. Their attorneys have already moved to dismiss the suit.

“The North Dakota Supreme Court has long recognized civil courts have no jurisdiction to pass upon and decide the doctrinal beliefs of a church or to interpret a church constitution,” they wrote in a brief.

And they’re correct. The Grabanskis are free to object to Norman Lutheran’s decision to hire a gay pastor. They’re free to object to the ELCA’s stance on gay rights. They’re even free to complain publicly and bitterly about Norman Lutheran’s version of church discipline.

But church discipline is a doctrinal matter, and it’s therefore far outside the jurisdiction of any secular court. Norman Lutheran was well within its legal rights to ask the Grabanskis to leave. This is separation of church and state in action.

Defamation is a little trickier, but, generally speaking, those cases can be hard to win in court. U.S. courts tend to favor a generous definition of free speech. The Grabanskis would have the prove that the church attempted to publicly damage their character, which seems a high hurdle.

It doesn’t look like the couple has much of a case. The court should concur with Norman Lutheran’s attorneys and dismiss the suit – and the Grabanskis should look for a church that’s more in line with their theology instead of trying to force their way into one that’s not. 

Follow Sarah Jones at @onesarahjones