• Key point: Church disputes in many states can be resolved through arbitration. In some states, arbitration decisions are final and not appealable to the civil courts.
• A Maryland court ruled that the decision of a panel of arbitrators in a church dispute was final and not subject to review by a civil court. A church experienced a bitter internal dispute over the question of who were the church’s lawful trustees. A lawsuit was filed by one of the two warring factions, which prompted the other faction to file a motion to compel arbitration pursuant to a state law permitting arbitration of disputes over church elections. The statute provides:
If any contest arises over the voting rights or the fair conduct of an election: (1) Each contending party shall appoint one individual from among the members of a neighboring church or the same religious persuasion or, if there is no such church, from among the members of any other church; and (2) the two appointed individuals shall select a third, similarly qualified, individual. The arbitrators shall meet at the place where the contest arose and hear and determine the matter. The judgment or award of the arbitrators, signed and acknowledged by them, is final.
An arbitration proceeding was conducted, and the arbitrators ruled in favor of one of the two factions. The other faction attempted to have this decision reviewed by a civil court. It claimed that arbitration decisions under the statute were “final” only in cases involving church polity or doctrine, and that this limitation did not apply in this case since it involved matters of “general corporation law” rather than church polity or doctrine. A state court agreed that arbitration rulings under the statute are final (and not reviewable by the civil courts) only in cases involving polity or doctrine. It based this interpretation on the fact that the purpose behind the arbitration statute was to make it “unnecessary for courts to resolve issues of church polity that inevitably arise in disputed church elections. Thus it follows that the word ‘final’ has a different meaning than it has in a dispute not involving issues of church polity.” Nevertheless, the court concluded that the present dispute did involve a matter of church polity or doctrine, since any determination of who are the lawful trustees of a church cannot be made without considering such matters. Therefore, no review by the civil courts was permissible. The court noted that even if it had concluded that this case did not involve polity or doctrine, it still would have upheld the arbitrators’ decision since it was not “completely irrational.” American Union of Baptists, Inc. v. Trustees of the Particular Primitive Baptist Church, 632 A.2d 226 (Md. App. 1993).
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