Court Can Resolve Church Dispute over the Election of a New Pastor

Such intervention is allowed if the court does not address religious doctrine or polity.

Key point 2-01.05. A minority of courts are willing to review the selection of ministers in limited circumstances so long as they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.

Key point 6-12.01. Church membership meetings must be conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements ordinarily specified in the church’s governing documents. The most common requirements pertain to notice, quorum, and voting.

Key point 6-12.04. Most courts refuse to intervene in church disputes concerning the validity of a membership meeting that was not conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents. However, some courts are willing to intervene in such disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.

Key point 6-12.05. Some courts will supervise church elections to ensure compliance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.

A Virginia court ruled that it was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom or the ministerial exception from resolving an internal church dispute over the legality of an election.


In 2017, a church’s senior pastor announced his retirement.

During a worship service on February 18, 2018, the pastoral search committee announced the name of a candidate (the “candidate”) for senior pastor.

Because two-thirds of the congregation must affirm the senior pastor, the church’s deacon board determined:

  • a vote would take place in March of 2018;
  • the church would hire a third-party vendor to count the votes; and
  • the deacon board would provide a list of members who were eligible to vote in the election.

The deacon board also determined that members who did not have certain membership records still would be deemed eligible to vote, and members for whom the church lacked contact information would be permitted to vote only if they appeared in person.

At the start of the election, the deacon board compiled a list of 1,302 active members eligible to vote. In reaching that number, the deacon board struck 347 members from the voter rolls because they were missing certain records. This conflicted with the deacon board’s earlier decision to deem those persons eligible to vote.

Regardless, on March 27, 2018, after the polls closed, the deacon board issued a letter to the general membership, notifying them that the candidate had not received sufficient votes to be confirmed as senior pastor.

After voting concluded and the candidate had not been confirmed, the deacon board met again to audit the church’s membership rolls. Based upon this post-election audit, the deacon board removed more members from the list of active members, which resulted in lowering the threshold for the two-thirds vote. In accordance with the new threshold, the candidate was confirmed as senior pastor.

Five members contest the election process used

On April 30, 2021, five members of the church (the “plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit in civil court seeking the court to:

  • Declare that the deacon board’s alteration of the membership rolls after the election violated the church’s governing documents and, therefore, the confirmation of the candidate was invalid;
  • Enjoin (meaning stop) the church from holding another election without first determining appropriate rules and parameters; and
  • Appoint a receiver, “who can protect the interest, assets and other values . . . until such time new leadership is formally determined [by another election].”

The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the court was barred from intervening by the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, as well as the judicially recognized doctrine known as the ministerial exception.

Constitutional protections

The church argued that deciding this case would require the court to violate the First Amendment because the court would need to enter the “religious thicket” and consider issues pertaining to church governance by reviewing the church’s appointment of the candidate.

The plaintiffs counterargued that the case was not barred by the First Amendment because they were merely asking the court to apply “neutral principles of law” to determine whether the church violated its own governing documents and basic democratic principles.

The court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled that it had jurisdiction over this case. It noted that the plaintiffs sued out of a concern of whether “the Deacon Board’s decision to finalize the membership roll after the results of the 2018 election was in compliance with Bylaws, Constitution and other applicable policies.”

The court continued:

Contrary to [the church’s] claims, none of this . . . requires the Court to delve into a religious thicket by reviewing religious principles of membership. Moreover, . . . there is no allegation in Plaintiffs’ [lawsuit] of a doctrinal dispute between two factions, [the church] also lacks an internal tribunal to decide conflicts, and Plaintiffs have alleged an undemocratic proceeding. Since [the church] lacks internal tribunals to rule on such matters, civil court action is necessary to resolve this dispute. . . .

[Plaintiffs] seek judicial review of [the church’s] compliance with its own Constitution and Bylaws. . . . (“Specifically, the dispute is whether the Church complied with its own requirement [that] at least two-thirds of the entire Congregation . . . confirmed the call of [the candidate].”) . . . However, [the church] cautions that in [this] case, the Court is likely to enter the “religious thicket” because, in order to determine whether the vote was conducted fairly, [it] will need to examine [the church’s] good standing criteria, and this requires delving into what makes a good Christian.

The court disagreed with the church’s argument:

Nowhere in the [lawsuit] do Plaintiffs challenge the substantive matter of whether a member was in good standing. Rather, [they] argue that the Board of Directors manipulated the voter rolls after the election, and that [the candidate] was not confirmed by a two-thirds vote as required by the Bylaws and Constitution. Deciding this case will therefore merely involve the application of basic democratic election principles. Accordingly, the Court may decide this case.

The court concluded:

Plaintiffs seek a court declaration that the confirmation of [the candidate] and the Deacons Board’s decision to modify the membership roster after the election had concluded, violated [the church’s] governing documents and policies. Importantly, Plaintiffs do not ask the Court to inquire into [the candidate’s] “administrative pastor fitness to perform duties,” but rather Plaintiffs ask for “the protection of the court for the purpose of obtaining a fairly conducted meeting” and “in protecting civil and property rights.”

Ministerial exception

The church also claimed that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit was barred by the “ministerial exception,” which generally bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers. The court noted that the ministerial exception “protects religious institutions from secular interference with the selection of ministers.” It further noted that the Supreme Court of Virginia has recognized that the First Amendment prohibits judicial intervention when it would limit the church’s right to select its religious leaders.

The court concluded:

[D]eciding the underlying case against [the church] would not interfere with its right to select its Senior Pastor. First, the underlying case . . . is not an action being brought by a minister (or other key religious member) against the church alleging employment discrimination. Instead, this action is brought by five members of [the church’s] congregation who, on the face of the lawsuit], do not appear to hold any role in [the church] other than that of a general member. Additionally, there is no allegation that [the church] fired any of the Plaintiffs from a religious position. Here, Plaintiffs merely seek judicial review of [the church’s] compliance with its own Constitution and Bylaws pertaining to the 2018 election. Further, there is no mention of employment discrimination [in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit]. Although the language of the ministerial exception does not explicitly state it cannot be applied to other scenarios, that silence does not mean it may extend to election issues. Here, Plaintiffs only ask for democratic, neutral principles of law to be enforced. The Court is not asked to determine whether [the candidate] would make a good pastor, or if he may stay within said position. Accordingly, the ministerial exception is inapplicable to the case at hand.

The church further claimed that the plaintiffs violated the ministerial exception by asking the court to “install a receiver with ‘all powers,’ including overseeing the ‘determinat[ion]’ of ‘new leadership.’”

Again, the court disagreed, noting that the plaintiffs had merely requested the appointment of “a receiver to protect the Church’s assets until the Court fully adjudicates all issues raised herein.”

The court explained:

The “all powers” referred to in the [lawsuit] is “all powers to protect the assets of the corporation until such time as new leadership is determined.” . . . [I]t is well-within constitutional bounds for a court to appoint a commissioner “to oversee a congregational meeting, and actually to preside, if necessary.” Here, Plaintiffs ask for much less. There is no request that the receiver will lead the church in doctrinal matters, or even that they will oversee the vote.

What this means for churches

There are three points to note about this case.

First, the court concluded that the civil courts do not necessarily have to refrain from resolving internal church disputes involving the legal validity of membership meetings.

The resolution of such disputes is barred by the First Amendment only if an inquiry into church doctrine would be required. The court concluded that a civil court could resolve a lawsuit seeking to determine if a church complied with a requirement in its constitution and bylaws—that the call of a new pastor must be confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the congregation—since doing so would not implicate religious doctrine.

Second, the court rejected the church’s argument that the civil courts are barred by the First Amendment and ministerial exception from overseeing church elections to ensure compliance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.

And third, upon later review by a circuit judge, the election of the candidate was deemed to be “null and void,” as was the decision to modify the membership roster. The church was ordered to conduct a new election “with transparent procedures consistent with the Articles of Incorporation, Constitution and Bylaws.” However, the circuit judge rejected the appointment of a receiver because he found neither of the state’s two receivership statutes applied to the church’s situation.

Howard v. Heritage Fellowship Church, 108 Va. Cir. 260 (2021).

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