Officers, Directors, and Trustees – Part 2

A Georgia court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment from deciding whether church members acted in accordance with state nonprofit corporation law in removing the church board.

Church Law and Tax2004-03-01

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.

Key point 9-07. The first amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees
Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes

* A Georgia court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment from deciding whether church members acted in accordance with state nonprofit corporation law in removing the church board, or in challenging some of the actions taken by the board members after their removal. A church’s board of directors dismissed the church’s pastor. The pastor refused to vacate his position, and the members of the church voted to remove the board members from office and from membership in the church pursuant to the state nonprofit corporation law under which the church was incorporated. The members then sued the dismissed board members based on actions the board took after being dismissed. The members claimed that the dismissed board members 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 former board members asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom barred any resolution of the members’ claims. The court agreed with the former board members’ argument, and dismissed the case. The members appealed, claiming that a court did not have to delve into ecclesiastical matters to determine the disposition of church property and whether they had complied with the provisions of the state nonprofit corporation law in removing the board members. They contented that the issues regarding who constituted the proper board of directors and whether the alleged former board members could control church property were secular in nature and capable of judicial review. A state appeals court agreed. It concluded,

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, realty, 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 [the members’] lawsuit. The trial court therefore erred in dismissing [the members’] lawsuit.

Application. This case illustrates an important point. The civil courts generally will refrain from intervening in internal church disputes. However, this general rule is subject to certain exceptions, as the court in this case concluded. These exceptions generally involve issues that a court can resolve without inquiring into church doctrine or governance.

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