• Key point: An attempt by church members to remove members of the governing board without complying with established church procedures may be overturned by a civil court.
• The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the dismissal of two church elders by a minister and his supporters was not legally effective since the church’s established procedures were not followed. A dispute arose between the minister of a local Church of Christ congregation and the governing elders. The minister claimed that he was accountable to the congregation while the elders claimed that he was accountable solely to them. The elders eventually ordered the minister to vacate the pulpit and remove his possessions from the church parsonage. The minister ignored this order, and continued to live in the parsonage and serve as minister to the congregation. This prompted the elders to file a lawsuit asking a court to oust the minister. In response to the elders’ lawsuit the minister convened a meeting of 27 church members (out of a total of 162) at which a vote was taken to “disfellowship” the elders. The elders were not notified of this meeting. An announcement was made after the next Sunday morning service that the elders had been removed “because of their willful and persistent violation of scripture in taking [the minister] to court.” A trial court thereafter issued an order declaring that the elders had been properly removed by the church. The elders appealed this decision to the state supreme court, arguing that the church violated its own procedures in attempting to remove them. The court observed:
[T]he basic elements of due process as prescribed the by church’s own rules were not complied with. According to the testimony of the [elders’] expert witnesses (ministers of other Churches of Christ), when members of a church are attempting to remove elders, proper process requires that the members follow an established procedure intended to protect the elders’ rights to due process. This procedure requires (1) that the elders be given written notice and specifications of the charges before any meeting regarding the charges; (2) that the elders be given an opportunity to be heard; (3) that two or three witnesses be called to substantiate the charges; (4) that the elders be given an opportunity to confront the accusers; and (5) that the elders be given the opportunity to present evidence in their own behalf, including calling witnesses to testify.
The court concluded that the ouster of the elders violated this established procedure in a number of respects and accordingly was invalid. As a result, the court reinstated the elders and directed the minister to vacate the parsonage and discontinue conducting services on behalf of the church. The court concluded: “Clearly, the civil court will not review acts of church discipline or membership expulsion where there is no question as to the invasion of civil or property rights. However, the court has jurisdiction to review an expulsion from a religious society to determine whether the expelling organization acted in accordance with its own regulations, or to determine whether it acted in accordance with the principles of natural justice.” Shearry v. Sanders, 621 So.2d 1307 (Ala. 1993).
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