2. the church defendants violated said trust; and
3. the pastor of St. Paul made intentional misrepresentations by soliciting donations to rebuild the St. Paul church while having personal knowledge that the decision not to rebuild had been made.
After conducting a hearing, the trial court dismissed the plaintiffs' lawsuit. The court characterized the case as an internal administrative matter rather than a property dispute, and found that the issues could not be heard without excessive entanglement with religion. The court determined that canon law prescribed a specific procedure for altering a parish, and that the church defendants had followed that procedure. In sum, the trial court concluded that the "church autonomy doctrine" of the First Amendment, which generally bars civil court involvement in matters of internal church governance and administration, deprived the court of jurisdiction.
The trial court relied on a ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Harris v. Matthews, 361 N.C. 265, 643 S.E.2d 566 (2007). Harris states that:
Determining whether actions, including expenditures, by a church's pastor, secretary, and chairman of the Board of Trustees were proper requires an examination of the church's view of the role of the pastor, staff, and church leaders, their authority and compensation, and church management. Because a church's religious doctrine and practice affect its understanding of each of these concepts, seeking a court's review of the matters presented here is no different than asking a court to determine whether a particular church's grounds for membership are spiritually or doctrinally correct or whether a church's charitable pursuits accord with the congregation's beliefs. None of these issues can be addressed using neutral principles of law.