Church Membership

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a dismissed church member no longer had a legal right to inspect church records.

Key point 6-03.1. Church members generally have no right to inspect church records unless such a right is conferred by state nonprofit corporation law, a church's charter or bylaws, state securities law (if the church has issued securities), or a subpoena. Church records enjoy no privilege against disclosure, with the exception of documents that are protected by the clergy-penitent privilege under state law.

Key point 6-10.1. According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church's discipline of a member since the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding who are members in good standing of a church.

Key point 6-10.3. The civil courts will not resolve a dispute contesting the discipline of a church member if the member failed to "exhaust" remedies available under the church's own governing documents.

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a dismissed church member no longer had a legal right to inspect church records.

A church member (Ken) demanded to inspect certain financial records of his church pursuant to the following provision in the state nonprofit corporation law:

Each corporation shall keep correct and complete books and records of account and shall keep minutes of the proceedings of its members, board of directors and committees having any of the authority of the board of directors; and shall keep at its registered office or principal office in Alabama a record of the names and addresses of its members entitled to vote, directors and officers. All books and records of a corporation may be inspected by any member, director or officer, or his agent or attorney, for any proper purpose at any reasonable time.

When his request to inspect church records was ignored, Ken sued the church. He asked the court to compel the church to honor his request for inspection, and to forbid the church from dismissing him as a member. While this case was pending, the church board unanimously voted to dismiss Ken as a member on the basis of "aggressively contributing to the division within the church and exhibiting a disruptive and divisive spirit contrary to the spirit of Christ and the character of goodness prescribed in the scriptures." The church asked the court to dismiss Ken's lawsuit on the ground that he had lost any legal right to inspect church records following his dismissal as a member of the church. Ken insisted that the church board's decision to dismiss him was invalid since the board had failed to comply with the church bylaws.

The state supreme court concluded that Ken's lawsuit "essentially invited the court to become embroiled in the merits of a fundamental ecclesiastical concern with which the courts must have nothing to do, namely, determining who is and who is not a church member." Since the civil courts could not interfere with the church's decision to dismiss Ken as a member, his dismissal had to be honored, and this meant that he no longer had a legal right to inspect records under the state nonprofit corporation law.

The court rejected Ken's argument that the church board's decision to dismiss him was invalid because the decision was not in compliance with the church bylaws or nonprofit corporation law. It noted that "a church member attacking a church decision may not obtain civil court review of that decision without first exhausting the church's internal appeal procedures. It is undisputed that the church bylaws provide an internal review procedure, which Ken has not yet exhausted. Thus, he could have no right to an order reinstating his membership pending the church's review of his expulsion."

What this means for Churches

This case illustrates three important points. First, most state nonprofit corporation laws give members a legal right to inspect corporate records for a "proper purpose." As a result, members of churches that are incorporated under such a law have a legal right to inspect records. Second, a right of inspection only applies to members, and so a member loses the right to inspect upon being dismissed as a member. Third, the civil courts will not resolve a lawsuit challenging a church's decision to dismiss a member if the dismissed member has failed to exhaust all appeal remedies under the church's bylaws or other governing document.

Lott v. Eastern Shore Christian Center, 908 So.2d 922 (Ala. 2005).

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