Civil Courts and Church Bylaws

Court does not overturn decisions made at congregational meeting with procedural irregularities.

Church Law and Tax 1996-01-01

Church Business Meetings

Key point. Some courts will not review actions taken at a church business meeting even if the meeting was not called or conducted according to the church’s bylaws.

A New Jersey court held that procedural irregularities in a congregational meeting did not affect the congregation’s vote to affiliate with a particular denomin ation. A local congregation was duly informed that a vote would be taken at its annual business meeting on whether or not to affiliate with the Catholic Church. The pastor of the church adjourned the business meeting and rescheduled it for a week later to allow representatives of the Catholic Church to speak. At the rescheduled meeting the congregation voted (134 to 110) to affiliate with the Catholic Church. Members who voted against the affiliation sought a court order invalidating the vote on the ground that it was conducted at an improperly called meeting. The dissenters pointed out that the church’s bylaws specify that only the board of trustees has the authority to adjourn and reschedule congregational meetings. In an extraordin ary ruling a state appeals court concluded it would not invalidate the vote of the congregation despite the fact that the meeting was conducted in violation of the church’s bylaws. It based this result on two factors. First, the civil courts have the authority to resolve property disputes within local congregations so long as they can do so without interpreting religious doctrine. There were two property interests involved in this case, the court observed—”the right to worship in a familiar surrounding,” and a lease agreement entered into between the congregation and Catholic Church following the vote to affiliate. The court concluded that “decisions concerning property rights of a congregational church should be upheld by the civil courts, provided such decisions are endorsed by a majority of the members. In this case, a clear majority of the members … voted to enter a lease with [the Catholic Church].” The court based this conclusion on the Supreme Court’s decision in Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871). The court observed:

When all the tallies were counted, those who chose to affiliate with the [Catholic Church] outnumbered those who opposed that affiliation. The only violation was that [the pastor] rescheduled the meeting, not the board. However, the court finds that that violation had no effect on the expression of the will of the majority. Notice requirements were satisfied. The congregants attended the meeting. The majority spoke. To borrow a phrase from the world of sports, no harm, no foul. Under these circumstances, the court will not invalidate the … meeting.

Second, the court concluded that the subject of the congregational meeting (whether or not to affiliate with the Catholic Church) was religious in nature and therefore the civil courts had no authority to interfere with what was done even though the bylaws had been violated. The court observed:

[T]his court can discern a no more spiritual matter than a determin ation by the congregation of who should shepherd its flock. The majority of the congregation … chose to invite the priests of [the Catholic Church] to be its spiritual leaders. In a congregational church, it is the will of the majority which must govern. [The church, prior to its vote to affiliate with the Catholic Church, was] a congregational church …. Thus, regardless of how the meeting was called, once a majority of the congregation came together, it had the authority to make decisions of an ecclesiastical nature …. Clearly, the congregation controls the religious life of the [church]. To invalidate [the meeting and vote] would subjugate the will of the majority on the basis of a minor procedural infraction. Ardito v. Board of Trustees, 658 A.2d 327 (N.J. Super. Ch. 1995). [ Effect of Procedural Irregularities]

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