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Court Can’t Weigh in Over Church Bylaws Dispute

Key point 6-06.4. Church officers and directors can be removed from office in the manner authorized by the church’s governing documents. It is common for church bylaws to give the membership the authority to remove officers and directors who engage in specified misconduct or change their doctrinal position.

Key point 6-12.1. Church membership meetings must be conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements ordinarily specified in the church’s governing documents. The most common requirements pertain to notice, quorum, and voting.

Key point 6-12.4. Most courts refuse to intervene in church disputes concerning the validity of a membership meeting that was not conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents. However, some courts are willing to intervene in such disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.

A North Carolina appeals court ruled that it could resolve a lawsuit claiming that (1) a church’s attempt to amend its bylaws was void because it was not done in accordance with the bylaws; (2) the trial court acted improperly in ordering a new church election to fill the vacant positions of deacon and trustee; and (3) the civil courts cannot resolve disputes over the selection of deacons and trustees when a church’s governing documents do not address the issue. In 2013, members of a church (the “plaintiffs”) sued their church and its pastor. All the plaintiffs’ claims stemmed from the pastor’s management of church finances and a decision by the church in 2013 to amend the church bylaws changing various tenets of church doctrine as well as other aspects of the church's day-to-day operations. The trial court denied the church's motion to dismiss the case, rejecting the argument that the First Amendment barred the courts from adjudicating these claims. The court concluded that the church had “violated its bylaws in its 2013 attempts to vote on proposed amendments” and therefore those amendments were void. The trial court also found that, because the existing bylaws were "silent as to the process for removing deacons and trustees,” the trial court could not play any role in reviewing the removal of those officers from their posts. But the trial court nevertheless ordered the church to hold an election “to fill vacancies in the office of deacon and trustee . . . at the next regular business meeting of the church, but in any event, no later than ninety (90) days from the filing of this order.” The case was appealed.

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