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Letting the State Decipher the Outcome of a Church Vote

Alaska
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During a regular church business meeting, a member moved to terminate the services of the church's minister. Of the members present, 42 voted to retain the minister, and 32 voted to remove him. In addition, one of the 32 dissidents produced a list of 57 proxy (absentee) votes to remove the minister from office. The moderator of the business meeting refused to recognize the proxy votes, and the attempt to remove the minister failed. The dissident members thereafter filed a lawsuit seeking a court order upholding the validity of proxy votes in church business meetings. A state trial court ruled against the dissidents, and the case was appealed directly to the Alaska Supreme Court. In an important decision, the court reversed the trial court and held that the proxy votes should have been counted. It based its decision on the provisions of the Alaska Nonprofit Corporations Act (under which the church had incorporated) which authorized proxy voting by members of nonprofit corporations absent a contrary provision in an organization's charter or bylaws. The court rejected the church's claim that requiring it to recognize proxy votes violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. Finally, the court observed that a church could easily avoid the recognition of proxy votes by simply amending its charter or bylaws to so state. Herning v. Eason, 739 P.2d 167 (Alaska 1987).

Richard R. Hammar is an attorney, CPA and author specializing in legal and tax issues for churches and clergy.

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  • November 1, 1987

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