• Key point. The civil courts are barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving internal church disputes involving the meaning of church bylaws.
The Iowa Supreme Court suggested that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a dispute involving the interpretation of church bylaws, but it refused to dismiss the case on procedural ground. Can the civil courts resolve an internal church dispute in which one group of members claims that the church’s leadership has violated the church bylaws? That was the issue addressed by the Iowa Supreme Court in a recent ruling. A group of church members filed a lawsuit, claiming that the pastor and other members had violated the church bylaws in the following ways: (1) Placed plaintiffs and other members on probation as punishment for unspecified misdeeds when no such procedure or status exists; (2) terminated longtime members of the congregation without reason or cause without authority under the articles and bylaws; (3) removed duly elected members from boards and committees for asking questions or suggesting ideas; (4) severed its affiliation with the United Church of Christ in an illegal manner and by improper procedures; (5) allowed the minister and his wife to take money from the church treasury and funds for their own personal and private use; (6) appointed members to leadership positions illegally; (7) refused to honor a proper request for a meeting of the congregation called for the purpose of exploring the relationship of the church and its minister; (8) cut off the right of appeal to the congregation by refusing to post minutes of board meetings over a period of years; (9) punished members who asked questions of the minister by terminating them from membership in the church and ousting them from positions of leadership; (10) punished members of the church who merely nominated other members to serve on boards or committees in accordance with the articles and bylaws; (11) leased church property to private individuals in violation of the articles and bylaws; (12) disposed of property belonging to the church to private individuals in violation of the articles and bylaws; (13) eliminated church committees illegally; (14) held illegal meetings of the congregation; (15) failed to follow the articles and bylaws in connection with the actions of the nominating committee; (16) participated in a “palace coup” resulting in their obtaining the recently remodeled church building and a trust fund of $300,000; (17) violated church spending limits; and (18) participated in a decision to allow the pastor to engage in “double dipping” of expense money in order to avoid the payment of income tax.
To be sure, these were serious allegations, and if true, represented substantial violations of the church bylaws. The pastor’s attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving such disputes. The trial court agreed, and dismissed the lawsuit. The disgruntled members appealed. The Iowa Supreme Court began its ruling by noting that “civil courts are precluded by the first amendment from deciding doctrinal issues,” including “membership in a church organization or church discipline.” It observed:
[O]rdinarily the courts have no jurisdiction over, and no concern with, purely ecclesiastical questions and controversies, including membership in a church organization, but they do have jurisdiction as to civil, contract, and property rights which are involved in or arise from a church controversy.
As a result, the court concluded that “it is clear that at least much of the controversy indicated by the pleadings would-if appropriately attacked-be deemed impervious to court intervention.” However, the court pointed out that the pastor’s attorney had filed a motion to dismiss the case with the trial court, which was granted. On appeal, the validity of such a motion is determined solely on the basis of the wording of the pleadings and “can be sustained only if the petition shows on its face no right of recovery under any stated facts.” The court concluded that “we cannot say, looking only to the face of the petition, that no recovery is possible under any allegation.”
Application. What is the relevance of this case to church leaders? It illustrates two important points:
(1) The court acknowledged that this dispute, involving allegations that the pastor violated the church’s bylaws, was an internal church dispute beyond the jurisdiction of the civil courts.
(2) The case illustrates a very important procedural point. When defending against a meritless lawsuit, an attorney has a number of options, including a motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgment. Often, attorneys will file a motion to dismiss with the trial court. But, as this case illustrates, such a motion may be much more difficult to defend on appeal, since an appeals court will evaluate such a motion solely on the basis of the matters contained in the pleadings. The court cannot look to the merits of the case, or consider any other evidence, since such a motion asserts that the plaintiff’s petition cites no viable cause of action. As a result, it is common for such motions to be reversed on appeal, even if the underlying case has no merit. On the other hand, a motion for summary judgment attacks not the pleadings, but the merits of the case. On appeal, the party who won the motion can defend it by demonstrating the weakness of the other side’s case. Such motions are far more likely to be affirmed on appeal.
In conclusion, if your church is engaged in a civil lawsuit, you may want to share this case with your attorney. Sometimes, attorneys will opt for a motion to dismiss, which will result in a quicker disposition of the case. This often proves to be a hollow victory, however, when the motion is reversed on appeal. The result is that the case goes back to the trial court for disposition, which requires additional time and expense. Holmstrom v. Sir, 590 N.W.2d 538 (Iowa 1999). [Corporations]
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