• What authority does a civil court have to intervene in a church controversy regarding the ouster of a pastor? A Texas state appeals court recently addressed this issue. In January of 1988, four members of a local Baptist church sought a court order enforcing the church’s ouster of its pastor. A trial court ordered another church meeting to vote on the pastor because of controversy surrounding the eligibility of certain members who had voted in the original election. The court ordered two church members to assist him in determining which members were eligible to vote. Following the second election, the court issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the pastor from acting as pastor, interfering with the normal workings of the church, going onto or near church property, withdrawing funds from church accounts, spending church funds, or engaging in any act “calculated to embarrass, harass, or injure” the congregation. The pastor also was ordered to vacate the church parsonage, return all church keys, and render an accounting of all church funds collected while he was pastor of the church. A few months later, the pastor was jailed for “contempt of court” on account of his violation of the court order. The pastor filed a lawsuit (a habeas corpus proceeding) alleging that his imprisonment was illegal. Specifically, he argued that (1) the trial court’s order finding the pastor to be in “contempt of court” was void because it failed to specify what actions of the pastor violated the order; (2) the trial court lacked jurisdiction or legal authority to interfere in church affairs; and (3) the trial court improperly usurped church authority in violation of the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. A state appeals court agreed with the pastor that the trial court had erred in failing to specifically describe the conduct of the pastor that violated its previous order. The court acknowledged that failure to abide by a court order constitutes contempt of court and warrants imprisonment. However, it emphasized that a judicial finding of contempt of court must be accompanied by a clear statement of the conduct that violated the order. Otherwise, the individual will not “know what steps are required to purge himself so as to be released from jail.” The court rejected, however, the pastor’s claim that the trial court lacked authority to interfere in church affairs. It noted that the civil courts have jurisdiction over church disputes if a “property or contract right” is involved. The court concluded that this standard was satisfied by the fact that “an election was held which resulted in [the pastor’s discharge], that he has refused to accept the termination, that he has since interfered with church services and will continue to do so … and will dissipate funds and property owned by the church unless he is restrained from doing so.” Finally, the court rejected the pastor’s claim that the trial court’s intervention violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. It noted that “the vote of a majority of the members of a Baptist church is generally binding in any matter touching the church government or affairs,” and that “rules and regulations, including election procedures, made by church functionaries or by long usage will be enforced by the civil courts if not in conflict with some civil law bearing upon the subject of such rules and regulations.” It concluded that the trial court had “sought to act in accord with church rules and regulations as dictated by long established custom and usage” and accordingly did “not usurp church authority.” It quoted with approval the following comment made by the trial judge: “The judge of this court personally considers the Bible to be the highest authority in existence. And that Bible very clearly teaches that there should be no division among Christians. But we have here a division in the church. What this court has diligently tried to do is honor your procedure in trying to arrive at a conclusion to this problem. It was my understanding, and I don’t think it was ever disputed, that the majority of this congregation who were in good financial standing with the congregation would have the right to vote in any church matters. Yes, we had some dispute as to who were those members. Therefore, this court felt it had to make a determination, based upon your policies, as to who should vote.” Ex parte McClain, 762 S.W.2d 238 (Tex. App. 1988).
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