Court Was Able to Rule in a Church Issue Involving Church Funds and the Appointment of a New Minister


What legal recourse does a church have if a minister refuses to honor a congregational vote removing him from office? An Illinois appeals court addressed this difficult question.

Here are the facts. Rev. Smith started a church in 1937, and served as its pastor up until the time of her disability in 1985. In 1958, she appointed a Rev. Sims to serve as "financial secretary" and pulpit minister of the church. As pulpit minister, Rev. Sims sat on the pulpit during each service, and conducted services on the fourth Sunday of each month. Following Rev. Smith's disability in 1985, the church's board of trustees took action requiring two authorized signatures on church checks, and removed Rev. Sims' name from the list of authorized signers.

A few months later, the congregation elected Rev. Wing as pastor of the church. Rev. Sims refused to recognize Rev. Wing's appointment, or the authority of the church trustees, and began disrupting worship services. During one service the church was forced to contact the police, and Rev. Sims was physically evicted from the premises. The church later obtained a court order permanently prohibiting Rev. Sims from interfering with church services, publicly asserting her alleged authority to act as minister, or exercising any authority over the church's funds.

In direct violation of this order, Rev. Sims withdrew $25,000 from the church's bank account. The church sued to recover the money, and Rev. Sims responded by alleging that a civil court has no jurisdiction over "an ecclesiastical matter." The state appeals court agreed that "when matters of religious doctrine or practice are at issue in property disputes involving hierarchical church organizations, civil courts must defer to any resolution of those issues reached by the highest authority within the church organization." However, "as long as no consideration of doctrine is involved in the dispute," a civil court is free to intervene.

The issues involved in this case, observed the court, did not involve "matters of religious doctrine or practice," and so it was appropriate for a civil court to intervene. The only issues present were (1) whether the trustees had the authority to restrict access to church funds, and (2) whether the church followed its bylaws in the election of Rev. Wing. Such issues involved no impermissible inquiries into religious doctrine, the court concluded.

Finally, the court noted that Rev. Sims had a legal right to "lobby in a proper forum and speak to others regarding the church." Therefore, the lower court's injunction permanently forbidding her to speak out regarding her claimed authority to act as minister was overly broad. While such an order may have been appropriate if it limited Rev. Sims' activities only on the church's premises, it was not so limited. Accordingly, it had the effect of impermissibly restricting Rev. Sims' right of free speech in forums other than the church.

The appeals court sent the case back to the trial court with instructions to rewrite the injunction so as to recognize Rev. Sims' legal right "to lobby in a proper forum and speak to others regarding the church."

This case illustrates that (1) the power of the state is available to assist a church in dealing with disruptive behavior, even if such behavior is on the part of a former minister, and (2) church officers can be held accountable in the civil courts for misappropriation of church funds.

Lily of the Valley Spiritual Church v. Sims, 523 N.E.2d 999 (Ill. App. 1st Dist. 1988)

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