Key point. Donors may be able to recover designated contributions to a church if their contributions were not applied to the designated purpose, so long as doing so would not implicate religious doctrine.
A Michigan appeals court ruled that the civil courts are not barred by the First Amendment's religion clauses from resolving a donor's claim that the church failed to apply his designated contribution to his designated purpose, so long as religious doctrine was not implicated.
The chairman of a church's board of trustees (the "plaintiff") donated more than $41,000 into a restricted fund whose purpose "was to raise money to expand the church and build a fellowship hall." Several years later, the plaintiff sued the church, claiming that the donated funds had not been used to build a fellowship hall, that the funds were used for other purposes without plaintiff's permission, and that the plaintiff unsuccessfully asked for a return of the money numerous times.
The lawsuit claimed that the plaintiff was entitled to a refund of his donation on the basis of several grounds, including conversion, breach of contract, and fraud and misrepresentation.
A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the plaintiff appealed. A state appeals court began its opinion by noting:
It is well settled that courts, both federal and state, are severely circumscribed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and … the Michigan Constitution in resolution of disputes between a church and its members… . Jurisdiction over disputes between churches and their members is limited to property rights which can be resolved by application of civil law. A court loses jurisdiction over disputes when resolution requires the court to entertain "questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity."
In this case, the court concluded, "resolution of the plaintiff's claims does not require a court to analyze questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity. The claims are based on the alleged facts that the restricted fund had a designated purpose of expanding the church and building a fellowship hall, that plaintiff donated money into the fund for that purpose, and that plaintiff's donations were not used for the designated purpose."
The court analyzed each of the plaintiff's claims:
Looking to the substance of the specific claims, the conversion claims add additional allegations that plaintiffs were entitled to return of their money, asked for return of the money, and did not receive the money. The contract claims add the allegation that there was an agreement that the donated money would be used for the sole purpose of building a fellowship hall. The fraud claim adds the allegation that defendants made a material misrepresentation that induced them to donate the money… . Under the alleged facts, the dispute does not require a court to analyze questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity. Rather, resolving the issues merely involves property rights and applying civil law.
On appeal, the church insisted that the plaintiff's donations had not been used for other purposes, and as proof pointed out that the fund contained more than the $41,000 donated by the plaintiff. The court rejected this defense, noting that the plaintiff had alleged that the donated money was used for other purposes, and the church had not directly rebutted this claim with affidavits or other evidence.
The church cited a previous Michigan case in support of the trial judge's dismissal of the case. In McDonald v. Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, 2003 WL 1689618 (Mich. App. 2003), a Michigan appeals court ruled that a married couple did not have a legal right to a refund of a $4,000 contribution they made to their church's building fund. The congregation planned to construct a new church the following year, but these plans were put on hold when the church received an unused school building. The couple sued their church, seeking a return of their building fund donation on the basis of the church's "breach of contract." Church leaders noted that the church had $500,000 in its new building fund and insisted that it still planned to build a new sanctuary as soon as the fund grew to $6 million. A trial court agreed with the couple and ordered the church to refund their contributions. The church appealed.
A Michigan appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling and dismissed the case. It concluded that the civil courts are barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from intervening in such internal church disputes:
We hold that this dispute involves a policy of the church for which our civil courts should not interfere. Because the decision of when and where to build a new church building is exclusively within the province of the church members and its officials, the trial court erred in not dismissing the couple's lawsuit.
In dismissing the relevance of this case, the appeals court noted in the present case that the McDonald case "is distinguishable because it involved decisions over when and where to build a new church building … not whether funds donated for a specific purpose were being used for a different purpose."
What this means for churches
Few courts have addressed the right of church members to a return of their designated contributions in the event a church does not apply the funds as the donor specified. The court in this case concluded that such cases may be resolved by the civil courts if they can do so without reference to "questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity." The court concluded that each of the plaintiff's claims could be resolved without recourse to "questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity," and therefore the civil courts were not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving the plaintiff's lawsuit seeking a return of the $41,000 he had donated to his church. Rogers v. Methodist Church, 2017 WL 2791002 (Mich. App. 2017).