Decision Reinforces When Courts Can—or Can’t—Resolve Church Bylaws Disputes

Many courts have concluded that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving any internal church conflict.

Key point 6-06.4. Church officers and directors can be removed from office in the manner authorized by the church’s governing documents. It is common for church bylaws to give the membership the authority to remove officers and directors who engage in specified misconduct or change their doctrinal position.

Key point 6-12.1. 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 6-12.4. 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 North Carolina appeals court ruled that it could resolve a lawsuit claiming that (1) a church’s attempt to amend its bylaws was void because it was not done in accordance with the bylaws; (2) the trial court acted improperly in ordering a new church election to fill the vacant positions of deacon and trustee; and (3) the civil courts cannot resolve disputes over the selection of deacons and trustees when a church’s governing documents do not address the issue.

In 2013, members of a church (the “plaintiffs”) sued their church and its pastor. All the plaintiffs’ claims stemmed from the pastor’s management of church finances and a decision by the church in 2013 to amend the church bylaws changing various tenets of church doctrine as well as other aspects of the church’s day-to-day operations. The trial court denied the church’s motion to dismiss the case, rejecting the argument that the First Amendment barred the courts from adjudicating these claims. The court concluded that the church had “violated its bylaws in its 2013 attempts to vote on proposed amendments” and therefore those amendments were void. The trial court also found that, because the existing bylaws were “silent as to the process for removing deacons and trustees,” the trial court could not play any role in reviewing the removal of those officers from their posts. But the trial court nevertheless ordered the church to hold an election “to fill vacancies in the office of deacon and trustee . . . at the next regular business meeting of the church, but in any event, no later than ninety (90) days from the filing of this order.” The case was appealed.

The appeals court’s ruling

The appeals court began its opinion by noting that “the First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits a civil court from becoming entangled in ecclesiastical matters. However, not every dispute involving church property implicates ecclesiastical matters. . . . Courts may resolve disputes involving a religious institution through ‘neutral principles of law.’ The dispositive question is whether resolution of the legal claim requires the court to interpret or weigh church doctrine.”

1. Amending the bylaws

Did the trial court act correctly in striking down an amendment to the church bylaws on the ground that the amendment was not done consistently with the method prescribed in the bylaws? The court noted that while the civil courts have “no jurisdiction or right of supervision” in matters of polity, they can determine “‘whether the church tribunal acted within the scope of its authority and observed its own organic forms and rules’ with respect to ‘civil, contract or property rights.’” The appeals court added,

Put another way, when the church creates written bylaws that govern the use of church property, and other matters unrelated to church doctrine and religious practice, courts can review whether the church and its members followed the procedural rules created in those bylaws. . . . The trial court did so . . . when it declared that the means by which the church and its members voted to amend the bylaws violated the procedure established in the bylaws. We therefore affirm that portion of the trial court’s judgment.

2. The court-ordered election

The church challenged the trial court’s mandate that the church hold “an election to fill vacancies in the office of deacon and trustee . . . at the next regular business meeting of the church, but in any event, no later than ninety (90) days from the filing of this order.” The church insisted that this portion of the trial court’s order impermissibly assumes a supervisory role over church governance. The court agreed, noting that the trial court had “‘exceed[ed] its authority by . . . ordering a new vote.’”

3. Removal of deacons

The appeals court agreed with the church that the trial court properly determined it could play no part in determining whether deacons and trustees properly were removed from their posts. As the trial court held, the church bylaws “are silent as to the process for removing deacons and trustees,” and “neither party directs this court to any neutral principles of law [i.e., not involving an application of religious doctrine] that would permit this court to fill in the gaps. With no neutral principles to apply, the courts have no authority to wade into when and how these church leaders are removed from office.”

What this means for churches

This case illustrates the view of some courts that they can resolve internal church disputes if they can do so without interpreting church doctrine. Not all courts agree with this conclusion. Many have concluded that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving any internal church conflict. Davis v. New Zion Church, 811 S.E.2d 725 (N.C. App. 2018).

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