• Key point 9-07. The first amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes
* A Georgia court ruled that the first amendment severely limits the authority of the civil courts to intervene in internal church disputes, but the general rule does not prevent the courts from deciding the composition of a church’s membership, or the resolution of some church property disputes. As the result of the decision to call an interim pastor, a church split into two factions. After escalating confrontations at the church building, one faction asked a civil court to order an accounting of church funds. The opposing faction asked the court to dismiss the case. The trial court concluded that the church was congregational in polity and that all disputes between the parties arose from a question of church discipline and government of ecclesiastical affairs. It further concluded that the persons who filed the lawsuit had no “standing” to bring their claim because they had been excommunicated by the church. Concluding that only a majority of the church members can decide the disposition of the church property, the trial court dismissed the case. The case was appealed. A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that the civil courts may not inquire into controversies relating to “the faith, teaching, doctrine, and discipline of the church such as expulsion from membership, internal procedures, quorums, or determination of membership in the church.” Such disputes are “religious matters that the court shall not question, and are beyond judicial review.” Therefore, “the relative import of the … different versions of the church’s religious constitution, bylaws, and corporate documents, and the validity of the excommunication of [the plaintiffs] by the church session, are beyond the power of the courts to determine. Such matters of doctrine and church discipline would bring the courts into the heart of an ecclesiastical dispute, a position we are eminently unqualified to take and are forbidden to take by the constitutional safeguard of separation of church and state.” However, the court cited three exceptions to the general rule of judicial nonintervention in internal church disputes:
(1) A court may consider the composition of a church’s membership for the limited purpose of determining standing to bring a claim on behalf of the church membership. It agreed with the trial court that an expelled or excommunicated member cannot represent church members, and that a court may not inquire into the validity of an excommunication. However, the court noted that one of the plaintiffs had not been excommunicated by the church, and so she was qualified to bring an action in which she claims to represent a majority of the membership of the church.
(2) A court may “legitimately consider matters involving distribution or disposition of tangible church property such as real estate, bank accounts, and other temporal assets [since] it is well-settled that a court will take jurisdiction over disputes involving churches when property rights are involved and when the suit is brought on behalf of a majority of the congregation.”
(3) A court may determine which persons represent a majority of a church’s membership since doing so “may be established without inquiring into religious doctrine or governance.” In this context, “church documents will be considered only insofar as they determine or assist in the determination of the persons who are entitled to possess and enjoy the property.” Further, once a court resolves the property issues by determining which group represented the majority of the congregation, “its involvement must come to an end.”
Application. This case illustrates an important point. The civil courts generally will refrain from intervening in internal church disputes. However, this general rule is subject to certain exceptions, as the court in this case concluded. These exceptions generally involve issues that a court can resolve without inquiring into church doctrine or governance. Kim v. Lim, 563 S.E.2d 485 (Ga. App. 2002).
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