HotChalk v. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, maintains “ecclesiastical stewardship” over Lutheran universities across the country that offer students a high-quality education rooted in the Church’s biblical worldview. In 2020, one of these schools (Concordia University – Portland) closed its doors. Soon after, HotChalk, a massive education technology company that had contracted to provide assistance to Concordia, sued the Church over the shutdown, claiming that the Church’s actions (including its input into the selection of the spiritual leader of the University) partially caused the school’s closure. As part of this lawsuit, Hotchalk has demanded that Oregon courts force the Church to hand over internal religious deliberations regarding religious doctrine and its selection of religious ministers, claiming the material is relevant to the case. An Oregon trial court disagreed and protected the Church, concluding that the information was shielded from disclosure by the First Amendment. HotChalk now seeks an extraordinary remedy from the Oregon Supreme Court, asking it to reverse the lower court’s determination.
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Maintaining the faith
Founded in 1847, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (the Church) is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the United States. As part of its religious mission, the Church has “ecclesiastical stewardship” over the Concordia University System, a group of Lutheran colleges and universities spread across the United States. Consistent with its religious polity (or organizational structure), the Church exercised its responsibility to ensure that leaders at Concordia University – Portland adhered to the Church’s Lutheran religious beliefs in operating the University, in part by making religiously-informed decisions regarding the appointment of the school’s new spiritual leader, its president.
Tech giant goes on fishing expedition
For numerous reasons, including financial difficulty, Concordia University – Portland closed its doors in 2020. In the aftermath of the closure, HotChalk, a multimillion-dollar technology firm that helped run the University’s online courses, sued the school and Church, demanding over 300 million dollars. The Church agreed to produce documents regarding the contract with HotChalk, and its related finances. HotChalk, however, also sought access to internal religious communications among Church leaders about religious doctrine, church governance, and the selection of religious leaders at Concordia.
But this is not the first time HotChalk has found itself in hot water. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education conducted an investigation into the company’s mismanagement of online student programs, resulting in a one-million-dollar settlement.
Protecting religious organizations from government intrusion
The First Amendment protects the right of religious groups to make internal religious decisions without threat of government interference. Forcing the Church to hand over private deliberations about matters of faith to courts would seriously interfere with the church’s ability to oversee its schools and ministry. As Becket’s amicus brief also argues, disrupting this balance would have damaging consequences for minority religious groups throughout Oregon.
In the Jewish community, for example, rabbis frequently must make important determinations regarding what Jewish law requires. These decisions often entail sensitive internal deliberations about religious doctrine and Jewish law. The ability of religious minorities like Jews to speak freely without fearing intrusive, costly litigation is crucial to the survival of these communities and their religious beliefs.
Importance to religious liberty
Religious communities: Religious communities must be free to operate and minister without government interference, including by keeping internal church communications private, especially when it comes to matters of doctrine and theology.