• Key point: Arbitration rulings involving churches may be subject to civil court review insome situations, but not if any interpretation of religious doctrine is involved.
• Maryland’s highest court ruled that an arbitration award addressing the composition of a church’s board of trustees was not reviewable by the civil courts since any review would require an interpretation of religious doctrine. A dispute arose within a Primitive Baptist Church regarding control of church property. A faction of the church board (the “dissident faction”), headed by the board’s president, claimed that the church had become extinct because its minister had died and there were no living members. This group did not recognize the current congregation to be “members.” Another faction of the board opposed the dissidents, and called a special business meeting to elect a new board. The dissident faction claimed that this election was invalid because the meeting had not been properly called by the president as required by the church’s bylaws. The dissident group later authorized the merger of the church with another congregation, and the resulting church elected new trustees including the dissident members and president. As a result, there were two boards of trustees claiming control of the church and its property. In order to resolve this impasse the parties submitted the dispute to arbitration pursuant to a provision in the Maryland nonprofit corporation law. This provision specifies that “if any contest arises over the voting rights or the fair conduct of an election,” then the matter shall be submitted to arbitration and the arbitrators’ judgment will be “final.” The arbitrators ruled in favor of the board elected at the special business meeting, and the dissident board members immediately appealed to a civil court. A trial court and appellate court affirmed the arbitration award on the ground that the award was final and not subject to judicial review. The dissidents appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals (the highest court in the state), which reversed the lower courts’ rulings. The fact that the nonprofit corporation law stated that arbitration awards in cases involving disputed church elections were “final” did not mean they were not reviewable by the courts. The court pointed out that arbitration awards entered under the Uniform Arbitration Act are “final” and yet reviewable by the civil courts in some situations. It saw no reason why “final” should be treated differently under the nonprofit corporation statute. The court did concede that the Act did not apply to this case since it applies only when agreed upon by both sides of a dispute. Here neither side agreed to be bound by the Act, but rather submitted their dispute to arbitration pursuant to a requirement in the state’s nonprofit corporation law. The court concluded that arbitration awards not governed by the Act are subject to judicial review under limited circumstances, including “palpable mistake of law or fact … apparent on the face of the award or a mistake so gross as to work manifest unjustice.”
The court refused to adopt a rule preventing civil court review of all arbitration awards involving church elections. While conceding that the civil courts could not review such awards if they involve religious doctrine or polity, it noted that not all disputes fall into this category: “It is not difficult to envision, for example, a disputed church election that concerns allegations of voter fraud, ballot-box stuffing, incorrectly printed ballots, or other misdeeds that are quite secular in nature.” The court saw no reason why arbitration awards involving church elections could not be reviewed by the courts in these situations. To rule otherwise would be to deprive the courts of their secular jurisdiction and to deny citizens their right to resolve their disputes in the civil courts. On the other hand, the court pointed out that “in many instances, issues of church polity will be inextricably intertwined with secular issues in contested church elections.” and that the civil courts may not “wander into the theological thicket in order to render a decision.” In such a situation, “courts may indeed be prohibited from reviewing arbitration awards … because such review would require an impermissible entangling of church and state.”
The court concluded that this dispute did involve religious doctrine and polity, making any judicial review of the arbitration award impermissible:
The root question, then, is whether the [church] was extinct …. The church would be deemed extinct if it had no members; the existence of members, conversely, would keep the church alive. It is well-settled in this state that the determination of a membership in a church is a question well embedded in the theological thicket and one that will not be entertained by the civil courts ….
Moreover, even if we were somehow to assume that the church was in fact extinct, we cannot say that control of the church and its property would pass automatically to [the dissidents and the church resulting from the merger]. [The church with which the dissidents merged] allegedly obtained its authority over [the “extinct” church] pursuant to the “recognized practice of the denomination of Primitive Baptists.” Again, in order to decide this matter, we would be required to resolve the property disposition based on our interpretation of religious custom and polity. This we cannot do …. The constitution will not permit such inquiries, and we will therefore not review the award of the arbitrators in the instant case.
In summary, this case illustrates that arbitration awards resolving church disputes are reviewable by the civil courts even if not governed by the Uniform Arbitration Act—but only if judicial review would not involve any inquiry into religious doctrine or polity. American Union of Baptists v. Trustees of the Particular Primitive Baptist Church, 644 A.2d 1063 (Md. 1994). 8F2, 9C8, 11J, 12A4h
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