• Key point. The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment from resolving questions of church membership.
• Key point. The civil courts must apply “neutral principles of law” in evaluating whether or not a valid church election occurred. If an inquiry into doctrine or membership is required, the courts may not intervene.
A Maryland court ruled that a church dispute over an election did not have to be arbitrated but could be resolved by a civil court. A dispute arose in a church between the pastor and board. The board decided to call a special business meeting to take a vote on the pastor. The church bylaws require that all special business meetings be preceded by at least one week’s notice from the pulpit, and this requirement was met. Prior to the date set for the meeting the pastor announced that he would convene his own special business meeting in three days for the purpose of electing new board members. No elections were held at this meeting. Instead, the pastor appointed new board members. A day later the special business meeting called by the board was held, and the pastor was voted out of office. Both the board and pastor questioned the legality of the business meeting called by the other. The board sued the pastor, claiming that his appointment of new board members was invalid. The trial court ruled that the case had to be resolved by arbitration pursuant to a Maryland law requiring arbitration of any church dispute over voting rights or the “fair conduct of an election.”
A state appeals court ruled that this dispute did not have to be arbitrated since it did not involve voting rights or the fair conduct of an election. The court noted that the board’s lawsuit claimed that the special business meeting called by the pastor was invalid because it failed to comply with the notice requirement set forth in the church’s bylaws. The court added: “In our view, the fulfillment of a procedural prerequisite for an election pertains to the existence of an election rather than to the fair conduct of an election. The phrase `fair conduct of an election’ presupposes that what took place was, in fact, an election.” The court noted that if the church bylaws “set forth a specific, secular requirement that must be met in order to hold an election, and that requirement is not met, then the election was never held. It is void. Such a situation requires an examination into the very existence of an election, not the fairness of the way it was conducted.” As a result, the dispute did not have to be arbitrated but rather could be resolved by the civil courts. However, the court cautioned that the civil courts may only apply “neutral principles of law” in evaluating whether or not a valid election occurred, and that “any question of doctrine or membership is nonjusticiable.”
Application. There is one additional aspect to this case that should be noted. The court pointed out that the church had two sets of bylaws that differed in “material respects.” It was not clear which set was valid. Such a dilemma is not uncommon. Many churches have different versions of bylaws. In some cases, these represent newer and older versions, but in others they do not. Obviously, having conflicting sets of bylaws can cause confusion. Are you aware of conflicting sets of bylaws in your church? If so, the legally valid document must be identified. Often this can be done through a careful reading of the minutes of the annual business meetings of the church. Consider the appointment of a committee to research the issue and make a report to the official board. Congregational endorsement may be necessary in some cases. The assistance of an attorney will be invaluable in resolving such an issue. Seat Pleasant v. Long, 691 A.2d 721 (Md. App. 1997). [ Procedural Requirements of Church Business Meetings, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
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