• 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.
Church Business Meetings
* The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a trial court acted properly in vacating a church election that was conducted in violation of the church’s governing document. A female employee of a church filed an informal complaint with the church’s board of deacons against the senior pastor, accusing him of sexually harassing her. She also alleged that the pastor had improperly used the church’s funds for his own use, provided false financial statements to the board at its monthly meetings, and failed to withhold income taxes from several employees’ paychecks. The board later met with the pastor, and he admitted that he had misappropriated funds for his own use and that income taxes had not been withheld from some employees’ paychecks, but assured the board members that he wished to work with them to resolve these issues. The secretary-treasurer later informed the board that she had formally reported the church’s failure to withhold income taxes to the Internal Revenue Service that she had filed criminal charges against the pastor, and that other church employees had filed criminal charges against him, alleging sexual assault. She also informed the board that she and the other employees had retained an attorney to pursue a lawsuit against the pastor and possibly against the church.
The board attempted to remove the pastor from the management of the church so it could investigate the many allegations against him, but the pastor refused to cooperate. In response to the board’s attempts to remove him, the pastor proposed that the congregation elect new board members. A congregational meeting was held, at which the pastor encouraged the members to remove the deacons who opposed him. The pastor then introduced the pastor of another church to preside over the election. At the conclusion of the meeting, the congregation, by a vote of 130 to 100, ousted the board members who opposed the pastor and elected a new board comprised of church members who were in favor of the pastor.
Some of the ousted board members asked a court to set aside the election on the ground that it violated the denomination’s book of discipline. Specifically, the board argued that the pastor (1) failed to inform the board of the matters he planned to raise at the church meeting as required by the denomination’s book of discipline; (2) failed to follow the procedures of the book of discipline in conducting the election meeting, including denying any of the members present at the election meeting the right to ask questions or otherwise to be heard; (3) failed to determine whether persons voting in the election were “members of good standing” of the church, as required by the book of discipline; (4) intimidated the members into voting the way he suggested they vote; and (5) failed to use the denomination’s own moderator to oversee the meeting, although he had offered his services, choosing instead to call in a moderator from another denomination.
A trial court set aside the election, concluding that a church is bound to follow its own rules, and that it had failed to do so. The case was appealed to the state supreme court. The court began its opinion by noting that it had on a number of occasions “exercised jurisdiction to determine whether an election meeting of a church, or a similar meeting, was conducted so improperly as to render its results void.” Further, it noted that while the civil courts “will not assume jurisdiction to resolve disputes regarding their spiritual or ecclesiastical affairs … there is jurisdiction to resolve questions of civil or property rights.” The court concluded that it could “properly exercise jurisdiction, given the financial and property rights of the church that were involved … and that the election violated the book of discipline in several material respects and also violated basic standards of due process.” It emphasized that the parties in this case “argue no issues of differences in religious faith or creed, and argue no spiritual conflicts, or ecclesiastical doctrine. Rather, the underlying dispute revolves around the property of the church—control over its financial assets and affairs—and not God.” The court concluded, “the record indeed supports a finding that … the procedures for elections, as enumerated in the book of discipline, were not followed. Thus, we hold today that the trial court did not err in setting aside the election.”
Application. This case illustrates the view of some courts that they can resolve internal church disputes if they can do so without interpreting church doctrine. Not all courts agree with this conclusion. Many have concluded that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving any internal church conflict. Yates v. El Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, 847 So.2d 331 (Ala. 2002).
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