Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
An Ohio court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving an internal church dispute involving the validity of a pastor’s removal by the church’s board of deacons. For many years, a church was governed by its articles of incorporation and a document titled “Preamble,” which apparently served as a set of bylaws. Notably, the Preamble states that the government of the church “is vested in the body of believers who compose it. It is subject to the control of no other ecclesiastical body.” Further, the Preamble establishes several offices within the church, including, among others, a pastor, deacons, and trustees. Under the Preamble, the deacons are the “helpers, counselors and assistants to the pastor.” Likewise, the trustees are charged with carrying out the “directions of the pastor and the church that have been voted and adopted by the majority membership.” Amendments to the Preamble were provided for within the document, which permitted amendments, additions, or repeal of the Preamble by a vote of “at least two-thirds of the members present at the annual business meeting.”
The church hired a pastor in 1990, at which time the church’s business and financial affairs were managed by the trustees. According to the Preamble, the trustees were responsible for holding title to the church’s property in trust. In addition, the Preamble states that the function of the trustees was to “affix their signatures to legal documents involving the sale, mortgage, purchase, or rental of property, or other legal documents where the signature of trustees is required.” However, the Preamble is careful to note that the trustees “have no power to buy, sell, mortgage, lease or transfer any property without a specific vote of the Church authorizing each action.”
Over time, the trustees stopped meeting, eventually disbanding in 1998. Thereafter, the deacons began managing the business and financial affairs of the church under the pastor’s supervision.
In 2000, the Board of Deacons approved the purchase of a Volvo for the pastor’s personal use. Three years later, the pastor, acting on behalf of the church, purchased a $58,000 Mercedes-Benz E Class for his personal use. He did not inform the Board of Deacons of his intent to purchase the Mercedes-Benz, nor did he obtain the Board’s consent prior to completing the purchase. Likewise, in 2005, he obligated the church to pay for a $48,000 Lexus GS 300 that he purchased without the knowledge and consent of the Board of Deacons.
Meanwhile, in 2004, the church obtained a credit card for the pastor and certain members of the Board of Deacons to use for church business. The use of the church credit card appears to have continued without incident for many years. However, in 2009, the Board of Deacons was notified that the pastor used the church’s credit card to purchase $4,000 in furniture for his son. Although he asserted that his use of the credit card was justified, he eventually reimbursed the church for the cost of the furniture out of his own funds.
In addition to his alleged misuse of the church’s credit card, the pastor also transferred the title to the 2000 Volvo and 2003 Mercedes-Benz to himself. He allegedly failed to seek the Board of Deacons’ permission to transfer the vehicles.
In June 2010, the Board of Deacons formed a task force charged with developing an employee handbook and other governance documents. Additionally, the Board began working toward the adoption of a code of regulations to govern the church. Six months later, the Board approved a code of regulations and submitted it to the task force. At its annual congregational meeting, the congregation conditionally adopted the code of regulations and the employee handbook with the stipulation that the congregation would be permitted to review the documents and raise any concerns or questions at the next annual meeting.
Under the code of regulations, the Board of Deacons was granted broad powers over the administration of the church. Specifically, the board was empowered to “direct all Church business and affairs and control its property.” Concerning the oversight of the pastor, the code of regulations provides:
The Deacons, acting as a Board shall have powers:
(a) To fix, define and limit the powers and duties of all officers, and to fix the salaries of all officers and employees;
(b) To appoint, remove or suspend, with or without cause, any officer, agent or employee of the Church as they deem advisable, and to determine their duties and fix their compensation.
The code of regulations describes the role, responsibilities, and authority of the pastor of the church as follows:
1. Pastor. The Board of Deacons, acting for the Church, shall employ a pastor to direct and be responsible for the spiritual affairs of the Church, in accordance with the terms and conditions of employment set forth in the Employee Policy Manual.
2. Authority of Pastor. The pastor shall have the authority to handle his immediate staff within the budget approved by the Finance Committee. The pastor shall have no authority or responsibility over any other program operated under aegis of the Church or in conjunction with the Church.
Following the provisional adoption of the code of regulations, and in light of the pastor’s noncompliance with the Board of Deacons’ requests for information, the Board decided to terminate his employment. Thereafter, the Board drafted a letter of termination, which was hand-delivered to the pastor at his personal residence.
Two days after receiving the letter of termination, the pastor sent a response letter to the Board of Deacons, refusing to acknowledge the Board’s authority to terminate his employment in light of his understanding that the congregation had appointed him as the “leader of the Church in all areas.” On the following Sunday, the pastor appeared before the church and proceeded to the pulpit, where he called for a meeting of church members to discuss his termination. At that meeting, the pastor asked to be declared the leader of the church by its members and to have the code of regulations promulgated by the Board of Deacons dissolved. Having apparently received the consent of the members present at the meeting, the pastor proceeded to exercise his authority as leader of the church by dismissing the members of the Board of Deacons from their positions.
The ousted Board filed a lawsuit seeking the following relief: (1) a judgment declaring that the code of regulations was validly enacted and that the Board of Deacons established thereunder had the authority to manage the church and its finances; (2) a judgment declaring that the pastor’s employment was properly terminated by the Board of Deacons; (3) a finding that the pastor was liable for trespassing as a result of his continued performance of church duties without the consent of the Board following the termination of his employment; (4) a determination that the pastor was liable for conversion for refusing to return the church’s automobiles, namely the 2000 Volvo, 2003 Mercedes-Benz, and 2006 Lexus; (5) a judgment that the pastor misappropriated church funds by, among other things, using the church credit card for personal use, transferring ownership of the automobiles, and using church funds to pay off the outstanding loans on the vehicles; and (6) an accounting of all transactions made by the pastor using church monies.
The pastor asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the issues regarding “the authority of a Deacon Board to terminate a Pastor” were ecclesiastical issues barred by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The trial court granted the pastor’s request to dismiss the case, and the Board members appealed.
An appeals court noted that “generally, the question of who will preach from the pulpit of a church is an ecclesiastical question” that cannot be resolved by the civil courts. The Board members conceded that a determination of who should speak from the pulpit was ecclesiastical in nature, but they insisted that they were merely asking the court to enforce their decision to terminate the pastor’s employment pursuant to the code of regulations. In other words, they were merely requesting the court’s involvement to enforce church action that had already occurred, not to direct the church’s actions going forward.
The court disagreed with the Board members’ characterization of the dispute as purely secular:
[The Board members] characterize this case as one involving only the secular determination of the validity of certain actions previously taken concerning the removal of the pastor. We disagree. Although seemingly secular, we find that the issues in this case concerning the adoption of internal governance documents, the resolution of conflicts in competing governance documents, and the enforcement of action taken to remove a pastor, fall within the ambit of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as they essentially relate to who should preach from the pulpit. We conclude that the trial court properly refrained from deciding which governance documents should control the church and whether the pastor was properly terminated. To hold otherwise would lead to trial courts impermissibly interfering with a congregation’s autonomy by instructing the church on matters of internal governance. Put simply, the issues present in this case must be resolved by the church, through its congregation.
What This Means For Churches:
Two aspects to this case are noteworthy.
First, the case illustrates the application of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to internal church disputes. The court rebuffed the Board members’ attempt to characterize this dispute as secular rather than ecclesiastical in nature, since the core issue was “who would preach from the pulpit.”
Second, an issue that the court did not address are the tax consequences of the pastor’s use of church funds for personal benefit. Section 4948 of the tax code gives the Internal Revenue Service authority to impose an excise tax against a “disqualified person,” and in some cases against church board members individually, if excessive compensation is paid to the disqualified person. Most senior pastors will meet the definition of a disqualified person. These taxes are substantial: up to 225 percent of the amount of compensation the IRS determines to be in excess of reasonable compensation.
Further, the IRS deems any taxable fringe benefit provided to an officer or director of a tax-exempt charity (including a church), or a relative of such a person, to be an automatic excess benefit that may trigger intermediate sanctions, regardless of the amount of the benefit, unless the benefit was timely reported as taxable income by either the recipient or the employer.
As a result, governing boards or other bodies that determine clergy compensation should be prepared to document any amount that may be viewed by the IRS as excessive. This includes salary, fringe benefits, and special-occasion gifts. If in doubt, the opinion of a tax attorney should be obtained. And taxable fringe benefits, such as personal use of a church vehicle or church credit card, will constitute “automatic excess benefits” regardless of amount, if not reported as taxable income. Again, the penalty can be severe, and implicates the board members who authorized the excess benefit as well as the recipient. 56 N.E.3d 245 (Ohio App. 2015).