• Key point: The civil courts are compelled by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom to refrain from interfering with the internal church decisions, including decisions regarding the selection and tenure of ministers.
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that it lacked the authority to resolve an internal church dispute regarding the tenure of a pastor. For several years, the membership of a local church was divided over the continued tenure of the pastor. At one point in the dispute, the pastor negotiated a tentative agreement with the board of deacons by which he would resign in return for a severance package. This proposal required approval by the full congregation. A congregational meeting was held in January of 1993 to present the proposed resignation and severance package. At this time the total membership of the church was 423. There were 207 members present at the meeting, of whom 108 voted not to accept the pastor’s resignation, 92 voted to accept, and 7 abstained. As a result, the pastor was retained. During the remainder of 1993 the church continued to be divided over the issue of its pastor. When a group of dissidents announced their intentions of presenting a motion to terminate the pastor’s services at the church’s annual business meeting in January of 1994, the pastor and chairman of the board of deacons cancelled the meeting. Some 88 members ignored the cancellation and conducted a meeting at which 83 members voted to remove the pastor. This vote was ignored by the pastor and chairman of the board of deacons on the grounds that the meeting had been lawfully cancelled and that the required 25 percent quorum was not present. A few days later, a group of members who had been present at the cancelled meeting filed a lawsuit asking a court to enforce the vote taken at that meeting. The judge, to his credit, persuaded both factions to submit their dispute to mediation. The parties met for several mediation sessions. The mediator submitted a report to the judge in which the parties agreed that the congregation would hold a “no—confidence” vote on the pastor. The parties could not agree on which members were eligible to participate in the vote or on the percentage of “no confidence” votes required to remove the pastor. The group supporting the pastor argued that the church bylaws required a three—fourths vote of the congregation for a “no—confidence” vote, while the group opposing the pastor argued that only a simple majority vote was needed. The parties agreed that the judge would decide these issues. After conducting a hearing, the judge ruled that a two—thirds vote was required for a “no confidence” vote under the church’s bylaws. The other faction appealed this ruling. The state supreme court ruled that it was without legal authority to “dictate procedures for the church to follow in terminating its pastor.” It began its opinion by acknowledging that “[i]nternal disputes among members of a church present some of the most difficult questions involving the limits of governmental intrusion into the religious affairs of its citizens.” The court noted that South Carolina “has a long history of concern for the protection of religious freedom.” It quoted from its own prior decision in a 1903 case involving the dismissal of a pastor:
When a civil right depends upon an ecclesiastical matter, it is the civil court, and not the ecclesiastical, which is to decide. But the civil tribunal tries the civil right, and no more …. The civil courts will not enter into the consideration of church doctrine of church discipline, nor will they inquire into the regularity of the proceedings of the church judicatories having cognizance of such matters. To assume such jurisdiction would not only be an attempt by the civil courts to deal with matters of which they have no special knowledge, but it would be inconsistent with complete religious liberty, untrammeled by state authority. On this principle, the action of church authorities in the deposition of pastors and the expulsion of members is final. Where, however, a church controversy necessarily involves rights growing out of a contract recognized by the civil law, or the right to the possession of property, civil tribunals cannot avoid adjudicating these rights, under the law of the land; having in view, nevertheless, the implied obligations imputed to those parties to the controversy who have voluntarily submitted themselves to the authority of the church by connecting themselves with it. Morris Street Baptist Church v. Dart, 45 S.E. 753 (1903).
The court in 1903 concluded that the only questions it had the power to consider were “did the congregation meet, and did it depose the defendant as pastor.” By contrast, in the present case the parties asked the trial judge to determine what percentage of “no confidence” votes was required to remove the pastor and which members were eligible to participate in the vote. “In a well meaning attempt to bring about an arbitrated settlement of this tragic church division, the trial judge agreed to make this determination.”
The court concluded that
[i]t is not the function of courts, however, to dictate procedures for a church to follow. The courts’ function is solely limited to interpreting the final action of the church. The [church in this case] is governed congregationally. Therefore, the court only has jurisdiction to review actions taken by the congregation. There has been no action by the congregation in regards to this lawsuit. Neither the congregation nor the church is named as a party to this lawsuit. The congregation never approved an agreement to have the court determine the percentage vote necessary to terminate its pastor and who would be eligible to vote. Rather, the parties that consented to this agreement were the board of deacons and a group of members of the church, clearly not the governing authority of the church. Because no action has been taken by the congregation, the trial judge improperly exercised jurisdiction in this matter. Knotts v. Williams, 462 S.E.2d 288 (S.C. 1995). [ Termination, Church Business Meetings, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
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