Church Membership

Church Law and Tax 1989-01-01 Recent Developments Church Membership Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Church Law and Tax 1989-01-01 Recent Developments

Church Membership

Can a court determine which members in a Baptist church are qualified to vote in a church election? No, concluded the Alabama Supreme Court. A dispute arose in a local Baptist church, and certain members petitioned a state trial court to order a church election to resolve the matter. At the election the votes of 35 individuals were challenged and not counted. The result of the ballots counted was a 74 to 74 tie. One group of members petitioned the court to have the challenged votes counted. The trial court refused to grant this request, noting that “if this court ordered the challenged ballots to be counted, it would be determining that they were members who were eligible to vote. This it cannot do ….” The court acknowledged that its refusal to order the challenged ballots to be counted “leaves the [church] without redress in the courts for even arbitrary acts of a preacher in either falsely challenging voters or intentionally bringing in non-members to vote.” However, the trial court concluded that “there is nothing this court can do about it” since prior rulings of the Alabama Supreme Court prohibited courts from resolving church membership issues. The trial court’s ruling was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which agreed that its previous rulings “do not authorize courts to determine the eligibility of church members to vote,” and that “to order that certain votes be counted, which theretofore were not counted, would have been tantamount to doing that very thing, i.e., determining eligibility.” The supreme court concluded: “In each Baptist church the majority of the members of the church control the business of the church. Also, all the members of a Baptist church are entitled to vote at a congregational meeting, regardless of age. However, the issue as to which members are eligible to vote is a matter within the discretion of the members of the church …. Because each Baptist church is a democratic institution whose membership possesses the right to vote, perforce it is the church itself under its rules that must examine the eligibility of its individual members to participate in that democracy.” Mount Olive Baptist Church v. Williams, 529 So.2d 972 (Ala. 1988).

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