Officers, Directors, and Trustees – Part 2

A Georgia court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving an internal church dispute involving compliance by the church’s members with state nonprofit corporation law.

Church Law and Tax2004-01-01

Officers, directors, and trustees – Part 2

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.
Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees

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.
Church Members

* A Georgia court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving an internal church dispute involving compliance by the church’s members with state nonprofit corporation law in the dismissal of church board members. A church’s board of directors terminated the senior pastor. The pastor refused to vacate his position, and the members of the church voted to remove the board members from both the board and the church. Church members then sued the dismissed board members, claiming that they wrongfully took control of church bank accounts, issued checks from the church’s account, and interfered with the church’s ability to sell its property. The dismissed board members asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the first amendment barred the civil courts from resolving such disputes. A trial court agreed, and dismissed the case. The church members appealed.

On appeal, the church members insisted that the trial court did not have to delve into ecclesiastical matters to determine the disposition of church property and whether they complied with the provisions of the state nonprofit corporation law in dismissing the former board members. They further claimed that the issues regarding who constituted the proper board of directors and whether the former board members could control church property were secular in nature and resolvable by the civil courts. A state appeals court agreed. It observed,

While it is true that the courts may not inquire into a controversy relating to religious matters such as internal church procedures and expulsion from church membership, the court does have jurisdiction to resolve issues that do not require an impermissible intrusion or excessive entanglement into ecclesiastical matters. Without intruding upon religious or doctrinal matters, trial courts may legitimately consider matters such as the distribution or disposition of tangible church property such as bank accounts, property, and other temporal assets. Here the trial court would not have to delve into any ecclesiastical matters to determine whether the former board members are duly-elected members of the church board of directors under the relevant statutes and controlling documents and to determine the disposition of the tangible church property at issue. The court need not consider ecclesiastical issues over which it would have no jurisdiction (such as church membership or the role of the pastor in relation to the board of directors) to resolve the neutral, secular issues presented to the trial court in church members’ lawsuit. The trial court therefore erred in dismissing the lawsuit.

Application. All courts would agree that they are prohibited by the first amendment from resolving any internal church dispute requiring an interpretation of church doctrine or polity. However, the courts interpret doctrine and polity differently. Some courts, such as this one, interpret the concepts of doctrine and polity very narrowly, and therefore are willing to resolve some internal church disputes. Most courts, however, have interpreted these concepts much more broadly, and have refused to intervene in internal church disputes. Most courts would have viewed the central issue in this case as directly implicating both doctrine and polity—namely, the authority of the board and members in a local church. Members of Calvary Missionary Baptist Church v. Jackson, 2003 WL 298178 (Ga. App. 2003).

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