First Amendment Bars the Civil Courts from Intervening in Church Elections

A New Jersey court ruled that a trial court acted improperly in overseeing a church business meeting and the election of a pastor.

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 6-09.2. Church members have such legal authority as is vested in them by their church's governing documents, and in some cases by state nonprofit corporation law.

A New Jersey court ruled that a trial court acted improperly in overseeing a church business meeting and the election of a pastor in a church that was beset with internal strife over doctrinal issues.

A Baptist church was organized in 1980. The church's bylaws describe church governance and administration. The bylaws establish three bodies to govern the affairs of the church—an executive board, a board of trustees, and a board of deacons. The executive board consists of the pastor, the board of trustees, and the board of deacons; it meets monthly and discusses all matters of the church, spiritual and financial. The trustee board consists of nine to eleven members elected annually and holds in trust all property belonging to the church, and designates the bank where the funds of the church shall be deposited. The deacon board assists the pastor in his spiritual work and consists of deacons appointed by a "free vote of the church, after recommendation by the pastor and deacons who possess the qualifications as recorded in 1 Timothy 3:8-13." In addition, there is an advisory council, consisting of the elected officers of the church and the chairs of all standing committees. The council is authorized to review and amend all agenda items before presentation to the church. Other officers include a treasurer, a financial secretary, and a clerk.

The bylaws specify that election of church officers is to be held during annual meetings of the church in the third week of November. The bylaws prescribe the process for nominating persons for church office. The advisory council appoints a nominating committee who prepares a list of members qualified to hold the various church offices, interviews the candidates to ascertain their willingness to serve, nominates one or more persons from the list for each office, and reports the nominees to the congregation. In addition, any member present at the annual meeting and qualified to vote has the privilege of nominating "any eligible person for any office not so nominated."

The church hired a senior pastor in 1989 and entered into a "pastoral agreement" obligating him to be cooperative, act in agreement with the deacons, remain in accord with the executive board, abide by the church constitution and bylaws, and espouse Baptist doctrines. In 1994, the pastor began efforts to implement a "full gospel" ministry at the church, a doctrinal teaching at odds with church theology before his arrival on the scene. Despite the executive board's disapproval, in 1997 and 1998 the pastor took several steps to advance the full gospel ministry at the church, including bringing a full gospel bishop to the church to instruct the executive board on full gospel theology, taking church members to a full gospel Baptist conference, and petitioning the deacon board for spiritual and financial support for the full gospel ministry. Based on the recommendation of the deacon board, the executive board voted to call on the pastor to honor all aspects of his pastor agreement and, if he could not, to inform him that steps would be taken to remove him from office. In addition, the executive board voted to forbid Carlton from introducing any full gospel teachings at the church's worship services. Carlton, apparently, agreed to abide by these recommendations. However, he later attacked the executive board and told the congregation that "I am going to do what I have to do." The executive board and the advisory council voted to terminate the pastor.

The decision to remove the pastor created such a tumult within the church that the executive board padlocked church doors and suspended church services. The pastor's supporters held an outdoor meeting at which time they retained the pastor, abolished the church's executive board and advisory council, abolished the church bylaws, and appointed a new 5-member committee to draft new bylaws. A civil lawsuit was filed to determine which group controlled the church. A trial court appointed an attorney as "moderator" to assist the court in resolving the underlying dispute between the parties. Specifically, the moderator was empowered to (1) establish the criteria for membership and the eligibility of members of the church to participate and vote at the annual meeting; (2) determine the issues to be presented at the meeting; (3) determine the voting procedures at the meeting; (4) determine the ballot questions to be presented at that meeting; (5) establish the form and manner of notice to be given; (6) resolve any other matters that would permit a fair and reasonable membership meeting to occur.

The moderator designated seven members of the church to serve as the nominating committee and directed that the committee propose a slate of candidates for the following positions: board of trustees, treasurer, financial secretary, clerk, and superintendent of Sunday school. After determining voter qualifications, the moderator supervised the annual meeting in which the pastor's supporters prevailed by a vote of 180 to 153. As a result, ecclesiastical control of the church passed from the church's executive board to a board comprised of the pastor's supporters. In a subsequent meeting, the congregation voted to retain the pastor by a vote of 152 to 125.

Several of the ousted church leaders appealed the court's ruling. The ousted leaders claimed that the church elections were void because they were contrary to the church's bylaws that vested ecclesiastical authority to determine the eligibility of nominees for church office exclusively in internal church governing bodies. By holding that nominations could be made by the membership without prequalification by the nominating committee the trial court impermissibly intruded into matters of church governance, practice, and polity. The pastor and his supporters argued that the trial court correctly interpreted church law to mean that the only rule is that the majority rules and that their faction represented the majority.

A state appeals court concluded that "in the absence of clear and unambiguous direction in church law, an intrachurch dispute over eligibility for nomination to church office, implicating as it does the more fundamental question of church governance and congregational structure, does not present a proper issue for judicial consideration." It concluded,

Irrespective of the approach used, courts are admonished to scrupulously avoid incursions into questions of ecclesiastical polity or doctrine that would be constitutionally impermissible. To be sure, the task of reconciling respect for the autonomy of religious organizations with the responsibility of courts to resolve conflicts involving civil matters is a difficult one. Admittedly, in some instances there is a gray zone between express secular terms and religious doctrine, and the distinction between the court's duty to abstain from religious questions and to decide legal disputes is blurred. Complicating the matter is the fact that the once simple dichotomy between hierarchical and congregational polities does not reflect the diversity of contemporary denominational structures ….

In the present case, the trial court adjudicated no simple property or contract dispute but rather an essential issue of church governance, polity, and administration—namely whether the church is a true democracy controlled by its membership or a more republican, representative structure governed by internal ecclesiastical bodies. Purporting to apply so-called "neutral principles" of law, the trial court opted for the former based on an interpretation of church bylaws that vested nominating authority in any church member without prior screening and recommendation by the nominating committee …. We conclude that the trial court's ruling in this regard was an inappropriate application of "neutral principles" jurisprudence. First and foremost, the method of neutral principles does not allow for construction of church documents if their interpretation is the focus of dispute and if such documents are not so clear, provable, and express that the civil courts could enforce them without engaging in a searching, and therefore impermissible, inquiry into church polity. Here, the issue of eligibility for office was a highly controverted question of faith within the congregation. Despite the obvious division of opinion, the basis for the trial court's resolution allowing for floor nominations is unclear, as are the rules of common law it relied upon to structure the church-member relationship implicated in this matter. In essence, the trial judge interpreted the term "eligible" to be without any religious significance despite plaintiff's contrary contention that the nominating committee pre-screens candidates for spirituality and religiosity. We emphasize that the application of neutral principles does not require courts to "neutralize" ecclesiastical words.

In the absence of clear direction in church law, judicial inquiry into church procedures is precluded. Although courts may intervene to determine whether established procedures of a religious organization, as proven, have been followed, courts should not intervene where such procedures are … less than clearly defined, or ambiguous. Because of such uncertainty, resolution of intrachurch disputes cannot be made without extensive, and therefore impermissible, inquiry into religious law and polity …. In this case, inquiring whether the nominating committee has exclusive ecclesiastical authority to determine eligibility necessitates interpretation of ambiguous religious law, the resolution of which would require a deeper probe into the congregational structure and allocation of power within the church. For instance, in the absence of an express procedure in the church bylaws, inquiry need be made as to where within the church the rules of polity, accepted by its members before the schism, had placed ultimate authority over the eligibility question …. Simply stated, neutral principles of civil law do not include standards for judging appropriate qualities for church leadership ….

Application of these principles compels judicial abstention in this case. The trial court's opposite conclusion … unwittingly entrenched itself in church affairs …. The court below became entangled in election procedures, appointing a monitor with broad powers to determine not only qualifications of voters, but in essence qualifications for office. Unfortunately, the court's involvement did not end there. After approving the results of the election for church officers, the court, through its appointed representative, continued to monitor and supervise the pastoral election after first designating those members responsible for recommending candidates to the church for consideration and vote, a task that the bylaws clearly and expressly assign elsewhere.

What this means for churches

This case presented the difficult question of the appropriate role the civil courts should play in overseeing church elections. The court concluded that the first amendment bars the civil courts from intervening in church elections involving questions of ecclesiastical polity or doctrine. Such was the case here, since the basic questions involved the selection of the church's pastor and lay leaders. The opposite conclusion would entangle the civil courts in church affairs. The court concluded that it could intervene in an internal church dispute to see if a church had followed its own procedures, but only if those procedures were clear and "proven" and a decision could be made without "extensive, and therefore impermissible, inquiry into religious law and polity." Solid Rock Baptist Church v. Carlton, 789 A.2d 149 (N.J. Super. 2002).

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