• Key point: A church’s selection of deacons generally is an internal matter that cannot be reviewed by the civil courts. However, a church’s selection of trustees may be subject to civil court review.
• A New York court ruled that it had no authority to interfere with a Baptist church’s appointment of “lifetime” deacons, though it could prohibit the appointment of lifetime trustees by the same church. An incorporated Baptist church adopted bylaws that made certain individuals “lifetime deacons.” These deacons were invested with virtually absolute authority over the church’s affairs. The bylaws also called for the election of trustees, and while trustees were given authority over the “legal and financial matters” of the church, they were subject to the control of the deacons. A dispute arose within the church over the seemingly unlimited authority of the deacons. A group of dissident members filed a lawsuit asking a court to rule that lifetime appointments of deacons are not permissible under state law. The court refused. It began its opinion by observing that the civil courts have no authority to resolve issues relating to a church’s “spiritual” affairs, but that they can “with great reluctance” resolve church disputes relating to “temporal” affairs such as property. The court concluded that the selection and tenure of deacons is a spiritual rather than a temporal matter, and accordingly the courts were without authority to resolve disputes involving such issues. It observed: “The office of deacon has primarily a ministerial function and, in large measure, deals with the spiritual well being of the church and its members. In this function, the court will not interfere with the constitution and bylaws of this church. While this may be outside the mainstream of current Baptist practice, it is not impermissible. The life tenure of certain named deacons is clear in the bylaws and as to them cannot be disputed.” On the other hand, the court concluded that trustees occupy a “temporal” rather than a spiritual position, and accordingly it would be appropriate for the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes pertaining to the selection or tenure of trustees. The court noted that the New York Religious Corporations Law specifies that church trustees have limited authority to conduct the financial affairs of their church subject to the will of its members. This leads to two conclusions. First, trustees cannot be elected or appointed for life, since in such a case they would not be subject to the will of the membership. Second, deacons cannot have absolute control over church finances. The court observed:
To the extent that the deacons have final and complete control of the spiritual matters of this church, this court cannot overturn this result. While this conclusion may not be typical of Baptist churches, it is the rule in this church. However, the same is not true of its trustees. This court declares that the board of trustees are not permanent. The deacons cannot have absolute veto power over the conduct of the financial matters of the church. To the extent that the constitution and bylaws appear to state the same, this court declares that it violates the purpose of the Religious Corporation Law. The temporalities of this church, including its real property, income, personal property and the term and salary provisions of its contract with the pastor, shall be in the control of the elected trustees subject to the approval of its membership. In this regard, the court notes that the bylaws make no provision for a permanent trustee.
Finally, the court approved of a provision in the church bylaws that permitted the suspension of any member who failed to either pay tithes or weekly dues of ten dollars during the previous year. However, the bylaws required that notice be sent to such members by certified mail prior to their suspension. Accordingly, the court declared that a letter issued by the deacon board to several dissident members informing them that their membership had been suspended for lack of financial support (they were withholding their contributions until the internal strife was resolved) was null and void since the members had not been informed by certified mail of the impending action in advance.
This case is important for a number of reasons. First, it illustrates the unwillingness of the civil courts to intervene in internal church disputes concerning matters of doctrine or polity. According to this court, such matters include the selection and tenure of church deacons to the extent that such persons are responsible for the spiritual affairs of the church. Second, it illustrates that the courts in some cases may intervene in internal church disputes regarding “temporal” matters, so long as no inquiry into religious doctrine or polity is required. The court concluded that temporal matters include the selection and tenure of church trustees having authority over church property or finances. Accordingly, the court was willing to rule that the Baptist church could not appoint lifetime trustees, and further, that the deacons could not exercise absolute control over the church’s property and finances. Third, the case illustrates that the civil courts in some cases may determine a church’s voting membership. In this case, the court ruled that the church’s attempt to suspend the membership of several persons was invalid and of no legal effect since the procedure for suspending members specified in the church bylaws had not been followed. Ward v. Jones, 587 N.Y.S.2d 94 (Sup. 1992).
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