• Key point: Contributions made to a church can be canceled if they were the result of “undue influence” by a minister or church official.
• A District of Columbia court of appeals ruled that substantial contributions made by a couple to their church may have been the result of the pastor’s undue influence. A church launched a fundraising program to finance the construction of a new facility. Several members of the church who contributed to the program sued the church and its leaders, claiming that the church leadership used improper means to raise the building funds. They demanded a refund of their contributions, on the ground that church leaders used “undue influence” in soliciting the contributions. Specifically, they alleged that the pastor informed church members from the pulpit that God required each member to give $5,000 to the building fund within five months. Those who did not do so were publicly identified by name during church services and were forced to “walk a gauntlet” in disgrace between two lines of deacons. At the end of the gauntlet the delinquent members were given an opportunity to make a public pledge to give the amount demanded. Anyone who failed to do so was ordered to leave the church, in disgrace, by the front door. Deacons who failed to make the required contributions, or who questioned the fundraising program, were threatened with excommunication. One member who asked for a church accounting was summoned before a church tribunal in the middle of the night, denounced for her defiance of church directives, and threatened with expulsion and damnation. Many members of modest means made pledges or contributions well beyond what they could reasonably afford. Members who claimed they were unable to come up with the required donation were informed that it was the will of God that they either sell their worldly possessions (including their homes, if necessary) or borrow the funds from as many lenders as possible. One couple claimed that the pastor visited them and insisted that they sell their home in order to pay their contribution. Church leaders denied most of these allegations, and insisted that those who contributed did so “gladly and joyfully.” A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the case was appealed. An appeals court ruled that some of the contributions may have been the product of undue influence, and it sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
The appeals court agreed that contributions can be returned to donors if they are the product of undue influence. In general, undue influence refers to conduct that destroys the free will of another so that a gift is not the product of the donor’s free will. It is often difficult to prove undue influence. This is due in part to the fact that it is perfectly legal to attempt to influence others to make gifts. As the court observed, “one can use argument and persuasion so long as it is fair and honest and does not go to an oppressive degree where it becomes coercive.” The court noted that there are several factors that tend to support a finding of undue influence. These include (1) the donor’s age, and physical and mental health; (2) the existence of a confidential relationship between the perpetrator and victim of the alleged undue influence, and “one-on-one” contacts between the two; and (3) solicitation of donations disproportionate to a donor’s resources. The first factor was not relevant in this case, since the donors who filed the lawsuit were under no physical or mental limitations. As to the second factor, the court conceded that the relationship between a minister and church members is a confidential one. However, it concluded that threats made by a minister to church members at large, from the pulpit, are not enough. Undue influence must occur in the course of “one-on-one” contacts with individual members. Accordingly, a minister’s threats of divine retribution made from the pulpit to church members who fail to make expected contributions is not undue influence—even if members who fail to contribute are forced to “walk a gauntlet” between lines of deacons and in other ways are publicly humiliated. However, when a pastor visits members in their homes, this is the kind of confidential relationship that suggests undue influence, since pressures directed against church members as individuals makes resistance uniquely difficult. The court observed: “A sound claim of undue influence could rarely, if ever, be founded solely upon the generalized invocation from the pulpit of the wrath of God, without one-on-one or similar pressures focused upon the complaining party rather than on the audience as a whole ….” As to the third factor, the court noted that “if a gift comprises all of nearly all of the donor’s means, the inference of undue influence is more easily made, while if a gift is but a small part of the donor’s total wealth, the presumption of undue influence is less likely to be drawn.”
The court concluded that some of the members may have been victims of undue influence on the basis of these criteria. In particular, if referred to the couple who was visited in their home by the pastor, and strongly urged to sell their home in order to finance their expected contribution. This arrangement clearly satisfied the confidential relationship requirement. It also satisfied the “disproportionate” requirement since the couple had to take out a second mortgage on their home to pay their contributions. Roberts-Douglas v. Meares, 615 A.2d 1114 (D.C. App. 1992).
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