Members Sue to Dissolve Church

Their lawsuit was dismissed.

Key point: In some states church members have the authority to dissolve the church corporation if the church is unable to carry out its purposes due to internal dissension. However, members who have left the church or no longer meet the church bylaws' definition of "members" will not have the authority to do so.

An Illinois appeals court dismissed a lawsuit brought by members of a church seeking to dissolve their church and have a receiver appointed to liquidate church assets.

A schism occurred in a Baptist church over the retention of the pastor. Problems worsened due to disagreements over the pastor's plan to use church funds to build a school. Some members opposed placing a mortgage on the debt-free church building to raise construction funds. When efforts to remove the pastor and those deacons who supported him failed, some of the disgruntled members filed a lawsuit in civil court seeking an order dissolving the church and transferring its assets to a receiver for distribution to another nonprofit organization.

Illinois law permits a voting member or director to "involuntarily dissolve" a nonprofit corporation that is unable to carry out its purposes. The disgruntled members claimed that this procedure was available since the church was unable to carry out its purpose of conducting religious worship because of the controversy.

The pastor and those who supported him opposed this action on the grounds that the members who brought the lawsuit were not voting member of the church and the lawsuit was not a matter that could be resolved by the civil courts. The pastor and his supporters pointed out that the church bylaws defined a voting member as one who contributed at least $15 each month to the support of the church and that none of the members who brought the lawsuit satisfied this condition.

A trial court agreed to dissolve the church and turn over its assets to a receiver for distribution to another nonprofit organization. It acknowledged that these individuals did not satisfy the church's definition of voting members, but it concluded that this did not matter since the church bylaws contained no procedure for terminating a person's membership.

The court concluded that both sides of the dispute failed to operate the nonprofit corporation according to its charter and bylaws and thus the corporate status of the church had been abandoned. The pastor and his supporters appealed this ruling and a state appeals court reversed the trial court's decision.

The appeals court began its opinion by emphasizing that one must have "standing" to bring a lawsuit. Standing refers to some real interest or right in the subject matter of a lawsuit. The court concluded that the disgruntled members who filed the lawsuit lacked standing since they did not satisfy the church's definition of membership.

The court observed: "None [of these members] were currently making their $15 a month donations to the church as provided in the bylaws …. We are aware of the hostile atmosphere which undoubtedly prevailed against these [persons] at [the church]; however, this does not dissuade us from finding that [they] had relinquished their memberships at [the church] and were, at best, inactive or nonvoting members as of the filing of their [lawsuit]. As such, [they] could not bring an action for involuntary judicial dissolution …."

The court noted that even if the former members had standing to sue, they could not prevail since the civil courts lack jurisdiction to determine whether or not the church "could carry out its purposes since the court's decision of that issue [would violate] the first amendment's prohibition against civil courts' involvement in religious matters. The courts' authority to resolve disputes is narrowly circumscribed by the first amendment's guaranty that the right to the free exercise of religion will not be abridged. With the exception of certain types of property disputes, Illinois courts have generally refused to decide cases that require a judicial interpretation of religious doctrine or church law …. [T]he underlying dispute, who will be the pastor at [the church], is an ecclesiastical matter which is not within the court's purview." Hines v. Turley, 615 N.E.2d 1251 (Ill. App. 1993).

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