Bylaws, Constitutions, and Charters

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.

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.
Church Business Meetings

A North Carolina court ruled that it was barred by the first amendment from resolving a lawsuit brought by church members claiming that the decision by a church congregation to incorporate as a nonprofit corporation was invalid because it was made at a meeting that failed to comply with the procedure specified in the church bylaws.

A church was founded in 1872 and operated for more than 130 years as an unincorporated association. All decision making authority was vested within the church's congregation. In 1991 the congregation adopted bylaws to govern church administration. During a membership meeting in 2003 the members voted to incorporate the church.

Some members who dissented from this action filed a lawsuit, seeking a court order declaring the church meeting invalid on the ground that it failed to comply with the "notice" requirements spelled out in the bylaws. A state appeals court concluded that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving the dispute, and the case was dismissed. The dissident members insisted that the case could be resolved by the court without any inquiries into religious doctrine, and so the first amendment would not be violated. The court disagreed:

A court's exercise of jurisdiction is improper where "purely ecclesiastical questions and controversies" are involved. An ecclesiastical matter is one which concerns doctrine, creed, or form of worship of the church, or the adoption and enforcement within a religious association of needful laws and regulations for the government of membership, and the power of excluding from such associations those deemed unworthy of membership by the legally constituted authorities of the church; and all such matters are within the province of church courts and their decisions will be respected by civil tribunals.

The court pointed out that "numerous ambiguities exist in the bylaws, conflicts remain between both parties' interpretations of the bylaws, and long-established church customs exist that may alter the interpretation of the notice requirements listed in the bylaws," and that both sides disagreed about the type of meeting actually held. As a result, to resolve this lawsuit a court "would be required to delve into ecclesiastical matters regarding how the church interprets the bylaws' notice requirements and types of meetings," and therefore the case had to be dismissed.

The dissident members also argued that the civil courts may resolve "church property disputes" so long as they can do so without addressing church doctrine, and they insisted that the current dispute was a property dispute.

Specifically, they pointed out that if the church were allowed to incorporate then the bylaws could be amended by a simple majority vote rather than the two-thirds vote required under the existing bylaws. And, since a church member's right to vote is a valuable property right, the court in this case could resolve the dispute.

The court disagreed. It agreed that the first amendment does not prohibit the civil courts from resolving church property disputes not involving questions of doctrine. But, it disagreed that this case could properly be characterized as a property dispute. It concluded, "The claims of plaintiffs in this case only tangentially affect property rights. The courts of this state should not intervene in a question of whether [a church should be] organized as an unincorporated association or a nonprofit corporation. Plaintiffs have failed to assert a substantial property right which has been affected by the incorporation of the church." Emory v. Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church, 598 S.E.2d 667 (N.C. App. 2004).

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