Court Intervention in Church Legal Disputes

Courts will not resolve disputes that involve church doctrine.

Church Law & Tax Report

Court Intervention in Church Legal Disputes

Courts will not resolve disputes that involve church doctrine.

Key point 6-06.1. Churches select their officers and directors in various ways. For example, it is common for members of a church board to be elected by the church’s membership, while officers are elected by the board. The civil courts generally refrain from resolving disputes involving the selection of church officers and directors on the ground that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from becoming involved in ecclesiastical disputes.

Key point 6-10.1. According to the majority view, the civil courts will not resolve disputes challenging a church’s discipline of a member since the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from deciding who are members in good standing of a church.

Key point 6-12.4. 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.

A Florida court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving an internal dispute involving an interpretation of a church’s articles of incorporation and bylaws, and applicable state nonprofit corporation law, because it could not do so without inquiring into religious doctrine. A church’s articles of incorporation provided for a seven-member board of directors to manage the “affairs of the corporation,” and director elections were to occur “annually at a meeting of the members of the corporation to be held without notice on the last Wednesday night of September each year.” The articles of incorporation further specified that “the bylaws of this corporation shall be made, altered, amended or rescinded by the board of directors of this corporation.”

The church’s bylaws addressed a number of governance issues, including the selection, authority, and discipline of members. With regard to discipline, the bylaws stated: “The church may, after due notice and consideration, terminate the membership of any member at the next scheduled business meeting or within 30 days by the vote of a simple majority.”

The bylaws also provided that regular business meetings were to be held monthly, and that “a majority vote of all active members present, unless otherwise stated herein, shall decide all matters.” The bylaws stated that they could be amended “by a majority vote of all active members present, at the regular business meeting or a special called meeting after one week’s notice.”

In 2007, a small group within the church comprised of its lead pastor, and associate pastor, and a lay leader, began discussions with members about the wisdom of, and biblical justification for, changing the church’s governance structure from congregation led to elder led. In 2008, after a regular business meeting adjourned, the pastor again raised with the members in attendance his proposal for an elder-led form of governance. The proposal met with strong opposition from several individuals.

The pastor met with several of the dissidents about what he considered to be grounds for removing them as members of the church. He called two special meetings of the membership to take action on “disciplinary matters” involving four of the dissidents. At the next regular business meeting a majority of the members attending voted to terminate those individuals’ memberships. After the vote, the pastor directed the four ousted members to leave the premises, which they eventually did, taking more than twenty sympathizers with them. Thereafter, the membership voted to amend the church’s articles of incorporation and bylaws as necessary to transition from a congregational church to an elder-led church, and to take a final vote at a special meeting the following month. Members also voted to reduce the number of church officers from five to three (the pastor, associate pastor and one layman), and make the membership of the board of directors and the board of elders identical.

Several of the dissidents (the “plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit in which they asked the court to undo the membership terminations of the four members; the election of the pastor, associate pastor, and one layman to the reconstituted three-member board of directors; and the adoption of revised articles of incorporation and bylaws. The dissidents claimed that the meetings in which these actions were taken were conducted without proper notice, rendering the actions taken null and void. They further alleged that:

(1) The pastor and associate pastor were concerned that the church’s congregation-led government was inconsistent with biblical teachings, and accordingly they “decided on a plan to supplant congregation governance with elder-governance” under which “three male elders would make all decisions” for the church.

(2) The pastor took offense to statements by members who “voiced opposition to elder leadership” and shortly thereafter, he called special meetings to oust from their leadership positions and membership in the church those expressly opposed to the governance change.

(3) The individuals removed from leadership positions and excluded from church membership received no notice, “written or otherwise,” of “the charges against them or the nature of the action to be taken against them” at the meetings.

(4) The pastor and associate pastor “did not establish that those to be excluded [from membership] had become an offense to the church and to its good name by reason of immoral or unchristian conduct, or by persistent breach of his or her covenant vows, which [the] church’s constitution and bylaws require for exclusion.”

The plaintiffs claimed that the pastor and associate pastor had breached their fiduciary duties to the church by removing certain members, electing new directors, and changing its governing documents” in violation of the mandate under the state nonprofit corporation law (under which the church was incorporated) that corporate actions be taken in accordance with the church’s articles of incorporation and bylaws. This, the plaintiffs claim, the church did not do.

The pastor and associate pastor asserted that the dispute was not a doctrinally neutral dispute regarding church governance (whether the church should be congregation led or elder led). Rather, it was entirely an ecclesiastical matter, and so the civil courts had no power to intervene.

A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that the First Amendment “prevents secular courts from reviewing disputes requiring an analysis of theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required.” However, “the issue before us is whether the First Amendment prohibits judicial review of actions taken by a corporation allegedly in violation of its articles of incorporation and bylaws when the corporation is a church.” The court reasoned that “when a church-related dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving a religious controversy, the civil courts may adjudicate the dispute.” But if a church dispute cannot be resolved without delving into church doctrine, then the civil courts may not intervene. The court concluded that even though this case appeared to involve a dispute over the interpretation of a church’s governing documents, the dispute was sufficiently entangled with doctrinal issues to prohibit civil court review. The court concluded:

[Plaintiff] asks whether the church, a corporate entity, complied with its articles of incorporation and bylaws in terminating corporate membership, electing directors, and amending corporate documents. Thus, it implicates … neutral legal tenets. However, even where neutral law applies, secular courts must not become entangled in essentially religious controversies or intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrinal beliefs …. First, the essential dispute in this case is not over property …. Rather, the controversy is solely over how the church should govern itself—an essentially religious matter. Second … [the church bylaws] detailed the procedure and grounds for terminating membership in the congregation. Consequently, any inquiry into whether the church adhered to its bylaws in excluding members necessarily entangles the court in religious matters protected by the First Amendment …. Finally, it is evident … that exercising jurisdiction in this instance would be tantamount to intervening on behalf of [a group] espousing particular doctrinal beliefs. We can discern no way under the facts of this case to draw a clean line between essentially religious matters protected by the First Amendment and matters of corporate law.

What This Means for Churches:

This case illustrates the important principle that the First Amendment bars civil court intervention in internal church disputes involving bylaw interpretations and compliance with applicable nonprofit corporation law, if a court’s resolution of the dispute might implicate church doctrine. Rosenberger v. Jamison, 72 So.3d 199 (Fla. App. 2011).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law and Tax Report, May/June 2012.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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