• Key point. The civil courts have consistently ruled that they cannot resolve disputes concerning the eligibility and status of church board members if any consideration of religious doctrine would be required. However, a small minority of courts have ruled that they can resolve such disputes if they can do so without considering religious doctrine.
A Missouri court ruled that it could determine whether two board members of a religious organization were qualified to serve, since it could do so without considering religious doctrine. A synagogue created a subsidiary corporation and transferred all of its property to the subsidiary in an attempt to protect its assets from liability. The subsidiary was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation under state law. Its bylaws specified that board members had to be members of the synagogue. A dispute arose among members of the subsidiary's board, and two board members filed a lawsuit against other board members, and attempted to oust other board members and install new ones. In response to these actions, the board voted to expel the two dissident members. The two dissidents refused to honor this vote, but they did nothing to challenge it. The board then asked a court to determine that the dissidents were not qualified to serve as directors since they were no longer members of the congregation as required by the bylaws, and to remove them from office. A trial court refused, noting that this case involved "an ecclesiastical matter not to be decided by this court." The board appealed, and a state appeals court ruled that it did have the authority to resolve the dispute. The court acknowledged that it had no authority to resolve ecclesiastical matters, and that "the removal or expulsion from a congregation is a matter for an ecclesiastical tribunal to decide and its decision thereon is binding and not reviewable by the civil courts." However, in this case the two dissidents had already been removed, and their removal was not the issue. Rather, the court was asked to determine whether or not the dismissed board members were eligible to continue serving on the board. The court observed that "the true issue raised and presented for review is whether [the two dissidents] qualify to continue as directors of the board ." It then referred to state nonprofit corporation law: