The regional diocese of the American-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church dismissed certain church members from their position on a local church's board of trustees, selected other church members to govern the church, and ordered the discharged trustees to deliver the church's assets and records over to the newly appointed trustees.
When the discharged trustees refused to comply with the mandates, the newly appointed trustees filed suit. A state trial court issued an injunction ordering the former trustees to "turn over all documents and assets of (the church) currently in their possession," and declaring that the church was subject to "the dictates of the regional diocese."
The former trustees appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the lower court's order and ruled in favor of the former trustees. The appeals court began its opinion by observing that "the state has a cognizable interest in the peaceful resolution of internal church disputes which are concerned with control or ownership of church property, and the civil courts have general authority to resolve such controversies."
However, "when doctrinal or polity issues arise in the determination of a property dispute, the courts must defer to the resolution reached by the church's highest ecclesiastical authority." If doctrinal issues are not involved, "the first amendment does not require that the state adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authorities in resolving property disputes. Instead, the state courts may choose from a variety of approaches."
One of these, the neutral principles approach, allows a court to determine who owns or controls church property by applying objective legal principles to church documents and records. Another approach, the "compulsory deference rule," requires the civil courts to always defer to religious hierarchies in any disputes involving local churches.
The Illinois court chose to apply the "neutral principles" approach and accordingly concluded that it was not compelled to rule in favor of the diocese. Only when a church property dispute (or any other internal church dispute) involves doctrine or polity is a civil court compelled to defer to determinations of religious hierarchies.
This was not such a case, concluded the court. The appeals court remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to resolve the dispute on the basis of "neutral principles of law." Illinois is one of a number of states that have elected to apply the "neutral principles" approach in the resolution of nondoctrinal internal church disputes. Such an approach certainly has appeal in cases involving independent or "congregational" churches. But, the resolution of internal disputes involving "hierarchical" churches on the basis of "neutral principles"—contrary to the determinations of a denomination—is indeed troubling. Aglikin v. Kovacheff, 516 N.E.2d 704 (Ill. App. 1987)