Officers, Directors, and Trustees

Can a civil court overturn a church’s election of trustees?

Can a civil court overturn a church's election of trustees? That was the issue before a New York state court. Five of the church's original trustees filed a lawsuit asking a state court to declare "null and void" two elections of trustees and officers. The first election filled a vacancy that occurred when a trustee died, and the second election attempted to add new trustees to the church board. The five trustees claimed that

  1. state religious corporation law specifies that vacancies in a church's board of trustees are to be filled by the remaining trustees, and not by the church membership in an election; and
  2. state religious corporation law permits an increase in the number of trustees only if the church's charter (articles of incorporation) is amended. Since the charter was not amended, the election of additional trustees was improper.
  3. A trial court agreed with the five trustees, and set aside the two church elections and ordered a new election. A state appeals court reversed this ruling. It acknowledged that state corporation law authorizes the civil courts to order new church elections "upon the petition of any member aggrieved by an election."

    However, it pointed out that the law requires that "a proceeding against a body of officers must be commenced within four months after the determination to be reviewed becomes final and binding." Since the five trustees were seeking to overturn church elections that occurred at least two years previously, their lawsuit had to be dismissed.

    In re Uranian 1st Gnostic Lyceum Temple, 547 N.Y.S.2d 63 (N.Y. App. 1989).

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