Officers, Directors, and Trustees

A New York court ruled that a pastor’s attempt to remove an entire board of deacons, and several church members, was unlawful and of no effect.

Church Law and Tax2005-03-01

Officers, directors and trustees

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 6-12.1. Church membership meetings must be conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements ordinarily specified in the church’s governing documents. The most common requirements pertain to notice, quorum, and voting.

Key point 6-12.4. Most courts refuse to intervene in church disputes concerning the validity of a membership meeting that was not conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents. However, some courts are willing to intervene in such disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.
Church Business Meetings

* A New York court ruled that a pastor’s attempt to remove an entire board of deacons, and several church members, contrary to the procedures set forth in the church constitution were unlawful and of no effect. For many years a church operated according to its constitution, which called for annual business meetings and the election of deacons. However, things changed dramatically when the church hired a new senior pastor. The pastor sent the chairman of the board of deacons a letter “excommunicating” him from membership, and sent similar letters to other members of the board. After the pastor took office no annual meetings were held and no elections of deacons took place. The pastor also terminated the church’s financial secretary who had served for many years. The church membership, at the pastor’s request, voted to abolish the office of deacon at a worship service. However, no notice was given that such a vote would be considered. The pastor later sent letters of excommunication to 23 church members in disregard of the church constitution’s procedure for removing members, and later convened an “annual meeting” of the remaining members following notice given from the pulpit over several weeks. The members voted to appoint new deacons.

The dismissed deacons filed suit in state court, claiming that the excommunication of members and removal of the deacons were unlawful. They also claimed that the excommunicated members should have been permitted to vote in the annual business meeting at which the new deacons were elected. The court acknowledged that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom “encompasses the power of religious bodies to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” However, it insisted that “this case does not involve questions of discipline, faith, or ecclesiastical rule.” Rather, the former deacons “seek to enforce their civil or secular rights as members of the church and as duly selected members of its board of deacons” and therefore “the dispute can be resolved through the application of neutral principles of law.” The court concluded:

Here [the former deacons] have established that their civil rights as members and deacons of the church have been violated, and intervention by the court is therefore warranted. Relying on the constitution and bylaws of the church as well as the Religious Corporations Law, they seek to enforce their secular rights as duly chosen members of the board of deacons and members of the spiritual body of the church. Courts may focus on the language of such documents and that statute in determining whether the civil rights of petitioners have been impaired. It is clear that the former deacons’ secular rights to have charges preferred and a trial before the members of the spiritual body [as prescribed by the church constitution] have been denied. Neither the trustees, whose jurisdiction is limited to temporal matters, nor the pastor had authority to strip them of these rights.

Since the church’s removal of the deacons, and excommunication of members, were not done in compliance with the church constitution, such actions were “contrary to law.” The same was true “of the action taken at the religious service to effectively abolish the board of deacons by removing all of its members, whose offices for an indefinite term are established by the constitution and bylaws of the church.” While the members of a church corporation “have the authority to amend their constitution and bylaws, such action must be preceded by appropriate notice. Since no notice was given before the meeting, the action taken then is null and void. Thus, the former deacons remain members of the board of deacons.”

The court concluded that there was “no credible evidence” that the purported “annual business meeting” was “an annual meeting properly called by the board of trustees.” Moreover, the former deacons and other members of the church, who had been illegally excommunicated, “were excluded from participating under the threat of arrest. Thus, they were deprived of their secular right to vote in the election of new trustees. The meeting was a nullity and as a consequence, the survivors of the last elected board of trustees remain in office until their successors are elected in accordance with the constitution and bylaws of church and the Religious Corporations Law.”

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 narrowly, and therefore are willing to resolve some internal church disputes. Other courts, however, have interpreted these concepts more broadly, and have refused to intervene in internal church disputes. Briggs v. Noble, 2004 WL 829439, (N.Y. App. 2004).

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