• Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed clergy challenging their dismissals, especially if the resolution of such a dispute would require consideration of ecclesiastical matters.
A Florida court ruled that a church board properly removed a pastor without a congregational vote, since this was the procedure specified in the church’s charter and bylaws. A church’s board of deacons (the board of directors) voted to terminate their pastor’s employment pursuant to the following provision in the church’s articles of incorporation: “With respect to the hiring of a … pastor … the sole responsibility for both hiring and firing said individuals shall rest with the deacons, as more fully set out in the bylaws of this not for profit corporation.” The church’s bylaws contain the following provision:
The board of deacons shall have the power to appoint and dismiss the pastor …. Dismissal of a pastor shall only be accomplished after prayerful consideration, in accordance with Matthew Chapter 18, 15th through 17th verse. However, it is specifically understood that there is no specific time period involved and the amount of prayerful consideration and the amount of time to correct any deficiencies and determination of such shall be solely up to the board of deacons.
There is no provision in the church’s articles of incorporation or bylaws for participation by the church’s membership in the dismissal procedure. After the board terminated the pastor’s employment, a number of church members objected. The board then decided to convene a meeting of the membership, at which the members would be given an opportunity to vote on the dismissal. At the meeting fifty-eight members present voted to retain the pastor while thirty-two voted for dismissal. Absentee ballots, ten for retention, twelve for dismissal, were also counted, as if the members casting them were present, for a total of sixty-eight for retention, forty-four for dismissal. Notwithstanding the majority vote for retention, the board later met and decided to dismiss the pastor. The pastor rejected the board’s action, and continued to serve as pastor of the church. The board, on behalf of the church, asked a court to issue an injunction prohibiting the pastor from serving. The board insisted that its decision to dismiss the pastor was the only action required to terminate his employment, and therefore he was no longer the church’s pastor. The pastor, on the other hand, argued that the board effectively “amended” the bylaws when it permitted the membership vote, and therefore the vote was valid and the pastor retained. A trial court agreed with the pastor, and the church appealed.
A state appeals court ordered the trial court to issue an injunction banning the pastor from serving. It noted that the church’s articles of incorporation permit the bylaws to be amended in either of the following two ways: (1) by a procedure initiated by any member, which ultimately requires the approval of two-thirds of the members of the church; and (2) by the board. State nonprofit corporation law, however, requires that any new bylaws must be consistent with the articles of incorporation. As a result, the pastor’s argument that the board “amended” the bylaws by calling a meeting of the membership to vote on the pastor’s retention had to be rejected, since such an “amendment” would be in direct violation of the articles of incorporation which allow a pastor to be removed only by the board. The court concluded: “If the board and the members had intended to amend the bylaws to share the dismissal authority, their intentions failed. This would not have precluded the board from allowing a straw vote of the membership, so long as the board did not delegate or abdicate its sole authority. Indeed it appears that this is what occurred here.”
The court concluded that the board properly dismissed the pastor, and that the trial court erred in refusing to grant the church’s request for an injunction prohibiting the pastor from serving as pastor of the church.
Application. This case demonstrates an important principle-the bylaws of an incorporated church cannot be amended in a way that is inconsistent with the church’s articles of incorporation. As a result, any attempt to amend a church’s bylaws in violation of its articles of incorporation is of no legal effect and is subject to reversal if challenged. It is therefore essential to carefully review every proposed bylaw amendment prior to presentation to the church membership to ensure consistency with the articles of incorporation. New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, Inc. v. Dinkins, 708 So.2d 972 (Fla. App. 1998). [Termination, Corporations]
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