Church Membership

A California court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by dismissed members challenging the legal validity of their dismissals.

Church Law and Tax2006-03-01

Church membership

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

* A California court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a lawsuit brought by dismissed members challenging the legal validity of their dismissals, since the church was “congregational” rather than hierarchical in polity and a “civil or property” right was involved. A group of church members, through a letter submitted by their attorney, submitted a petition to the church board invoking a provision of the church constitution requiring the board to call a special congregational meeting within 30 days to decide whether the pastor’s term of office should be terminated. The board decided that the petition was “out of order.” On this basis, it began a procedure to expel the members who signed the petition on the ground that their actions were contrary to biblical principles. These members asked a court to order the church to set aside their expulsions, and to convene a congregational meeting. The court agreed to issue such an order, and the church appealed.

A state appeals court concluded that “the civil courts may intervene in church disputes, at least those involving civil or property rights, to the extent the disputes can be resolved using, primarily if not entirely, neutral principles of what is essentially the law of contracts.” ‘The “formal evidence” of such a contract “is contained in the canons of the church, the constitution, articles, and bylaws of the society, and the customs and usages which have grown up in connection with these instruments.” The court concluded that this dispute did implicate the members’ civil and property rights, namely, “the right under the church constitution to petition the board to call a special congregational meeting, and the right not to be expelled from the church except as provided in the constitution.” The court continued:

The Nonprofit Religious Corporation Law provides that the activities and affairs of a nonprofit religious corporation like the church [in this case] must be conducted, and its corporate powers exercised by or under the direction of, its board, subject to the provisions of the Corporations Code and “any provision in the articles or bylaws” of the corporation. “Bylaws” include “the code or codes of rules used, adopted, or recognized for the regulation or management of the affairs of the corporation irrespective of the name or names by which such rules are designated.” “The articles and bylaws of a corporation constitute rules of law adopted for its internal governance “to regulate the conduct and prescribe the rights and duties of its members towards itself and among themselves in reference to the management of its affairs.” And they are a source of neutral principles upon which the civil courts have intervened in church disputes ….

The board may not, simply by couching its decisions in biblical terms, automatically insulate itself from scrutiny by the courts. The church, by choosing to organize itself under the Nonprofit Religious Corporation Law, agreed to be bound by its provisions, and by its own bylaws adopted pursuant to these provisions. The church constitution requires the board to convene a special congregational meeting within 30 days after receiving a petition signed by 10 percent of the members …. This right of the members to call a special meeting is no right at all if they can be expelled from the church for exercising it, or if they are denied the means to enforce the right if the board chooses to ignore their petition ….

[The church] board could not discipline church members for behaving in ways the board considered to be contrary to the religious principles upon which the church is founded, or that the civil courts have any business inquiring into whether the board has correctly interpreted or applied these principles. But in this case the board expelled six members for securing a petition and a lawyer, i.e., for acts which, although protected by the law and by the church’s own constitution, were deemed by the board to have been taken for improper reasons. In effect, the board has asserted an absolute right, on religious grounds, to selectively ignore laws with which it disagrees, notwithstanding its promise, and its obligation, to abide by them. It cannot have it both ways.

The court stressed that it was only dealing with a “congregational” church that was not subject to the rules of a church hierarchy. It conceded that “there is a constitutionally significant difference between a situation where a higher judicatory tribunal within a hierarchical church has resolved an internal dispute in a local church.”

The court concluded, “This case does not require the court to decide whether the members’ actions violated the biblical principles upon which the church is founded, but whether the church may discipline members for exercising rights guaranteed them by the civil law under which the church is organized.” As a result, the court affirmed the trial court’s issuance of an order barring the board from “terminating or deactivating the membership of any member for the reason that he or she signed, circulated, or supported the meeting petition, and insofar as it directs the board to reinstate all such persons to active membership status pending a judgment on the merits of the members’ petition.”

Application. There are a couple of points to note about this case. First, the court concluded that the civil courts do not necessarily have to refrain from resolving internal church disputes involving the expulsion of members. The resolution of such disputes is barred by the First Amendment only if an inquiry into church doctrine would be required, or in cases involving decisions made by judicatories of hierarchical denominations. The court concluded that ecclesiastical matters are not at issue when a court is asked to determine whether church members were dismissed according to the procedures set forth in the church’s constitution or the state nonprofit corporation law under which a church is incorporated. The Cross Church Men’s Society v. Executive Committee, 2005 WL 555270 (Cal. App. 2005).

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