• 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 6-10.2. According to the minority view, the civil courts may engage in "marginal review" of disputes involving the discipline of a church member, in a few limited circumstances if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity. For example, a few courts have been willing to review membership dismissals in one or more of the following limited circumstances: (1) the church interfered with a member's civil, contract, or property rights; (2) the disciplining body lacked authority to act; (3) the church failed to comply with its governing documents; (4) the church's decision was based on fraud or collusion; or (5) interpretation of contested terminology in the church's governing documents.
• 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 the civil courts are barred by the first amendment from resolving cases involving the discipline of church members unless they can do so "without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." Two church members (the "plaintiffs") had a longstanding dispute with the pastor and church board over alleged mishandling of church funds. The plaintiffs demanded copies of certain financial records of the church. In response, the church sent the plaintiffs a letter informing them that their membership had been terminated by the church board based on scriptural discipline. The letter set forth six grounds for the termination, and recited efforts made by the church leadership to reconcile with the plaintiffs. Following receipt of the letter terminating their membership the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in which they asked a court to issue an order prohibiting the church from terminating their membership, and directing the church to allow them to inspect certain records. The plaintiffs cited three reasons why their termination was improper: (1) the grounds stated in the termination letter were not accurate; (2) the persons purporting to terminate their membership were without authority to take that action; and (3) the termination was not conducted in a fair and reasonable manner and in good faith as required by the state nonprofit corporation law. The church insisted that the civil courts are barred by the first amendment from addressing questions of church membership and church discipline.
A state appeals court began its opinion by observing that "the courts cannot become entangled in ecclesiastical matters of a church" and "have no jurisdiction over and no concern with purely ecclesiastical questions and controversies." The court concluded that membership in a church is a "core ecclesiastical matter" since "the power to control church membership is ultimately the power to control the church. It is an area where the courts of this state should not become involved."
The court addressed the three grounds cited by the plaintiffs for overturning their termination. As for the first ground (the termination letter did not accurately state the grounds for termination) the court concluded, "The courts will not become involved in determining whether grounds for termination of church membership are doctrinally or scripturally correct." The plaintiffs' second argument was that the persons who terminated their membership were not authorized to do so. They acknowledged that the church bylaws authorized the church board to administer discipline, but claimed that the bylaws had never been adopted by the congregation. The court noted that the first amendment does not prohibit the courts from resolving "property disputes" provided that this can be done "without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." The court concluded that the plaintiffs' church membership was property interest, and that the courts "do have jurisdiction over the very narrow issue of whether the bylaws were properly adopted by the church" since "this inquiry can be made without resolving any ecclesiastical or doctrinal matters." The plaintiffs' third argument was that their termination was not conducted pursuant to the state nonprofit corporation law which specifies that "no member of a corporation may be expelled or suspended, and no membership may be terminated or suspended, except in a manner that is fair and reasonable and is carried out in good faith." In rejecting this argument, the court concluded:
The fact that defendant is a corporation does not alter our analysis of whether the courts of this state have jurisdiction in ecclesiastical disputes. Plaintiffs would have the courts direct that churches cannot terminate membership without following certain due process procedures including notice and an opportunity to be heard. This we refuse to do. A church's criteria for membership and the manner in which membership is terminated are core ecclesiastical matters protected by the [first amendment].
With respect to the plaintiffs' demand to inspect church records the court noted that this claim was dependent upon plaintiffs being members of the church at the time of the filing of their lawsuit. It concluded that "if the trial court determines that the bylaws were duly adopted, then the courts have no jurisdiction over the termination of the plaintiffs' membership." And, since their termination would have occurred prior to the filing of the lawsuit, they would lack standing to pursue their demand to inspect church records in court.
. This case affirms the general rule that church membership and discipline decisions are not reviewable by the civil courts, even when those decisions occur in a church business meeting that does not comply with applicable procedural requirements. However, the court did note that the first amendment does not prohibit the courts from resolving "property disputes" provided that this can be done "without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." And, it concluded that the plaintiffs' church membership was property interest, and that the courts "do have jurisdiction over the very narrow issue of whether the bylaws were properly adopted by the church" since "this inquiry can be made without resolving any ecclesiastical or doctrinal matters." Tubiolo v. Abundant Life Church, (N.C. App. 2004).
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