Bacher v. Metcalf, 611 So.2d 1030 (Ala. 1992)
Key point: The civil courts will not resolve internal church disputes involving matters of doctrine, practice or discipline. However, the courts can resolve such disputes if both sides agree.
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that it was proper for a trial court to resolve an internal church dispute over a church election since both sides to the dispute agreed to civil court involvement.
A dispute arose in a Baptist church concerning a proposed day care center at the church that was to be operated by the daughters of the senior minister and song leader. The senior minister decided to resolve the dispute by calling for a special business meeting at which the church would exercise discipline over two of the church's four deacons and the chairpersons of six committees.
The minister also proposed that a vote of confidence would be taken on him at the meeting. Seventy-eight members attended the meeting, which was chaired by the senior minister. During the meeting, 34 members left and went to a separate part of the church where they conducted their own meeting. All 34 members voted against retaining the senior minister.
Meanwhile, at the meeting chaired by the senior minister, 42 of the 44 members present voted in favor of retaining the minister, placing the 2 deacons on the inactive list, and removing the 6 committee chairpersons. The remaining 2 members abstained from voting. Following these meetings, one of the 34 dissenting members sought a court order prohibiting the senior minister, assistant minister, and song leader from performing any duties at the church.
The parties later agreed to a court-supervised vote at which all contested votes would be decided by the trial judge. At this second meeting, the members of the church voted on whether to retain the senior minister, assistant minister, and song leader. The vote was 59 in favor of retaining them and 58 against. Several church members challenged certain votes cast in favor of the senior minister. Specifically, they claimed that the minister, his wife, 2 of his children, and his son-in-law should not have been allowed to vote, claiming that it was against church custom to allow the pastor or his family to vote on matters directly affecting them. Also, the families of the assistant minister and song leader voted in violation of the same church custom.
The dissident church members sued the minister, assistant minister, and song leader, claiming that they were wrongfully holding church staff positions and misusing church funds. The members sought a court order prohibiting these individuals from continuing as officers in the church. The trial court ruled that it was a violation of church custom for the senior minister and his wife to vote in the election, and accordingly the correct vote was 58 in favor of dismissing the ministers and song leader and 57 in favor of retaining them.
The court concluded that these individuals had been wrongfully holding their positions following the special election, and it ordered them to vacate their offices. The court also ordered an accounting of church funds, and a reinstatement of the 2 deacons who had been removed at the first election. The ministers and song leader appealed this decision, and the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that the trial court had resolved the case properly. The court began its opinion by observing that "civil courts cannot adjudicate religious disputes concerning spiritual or ecclesiastical matters, but the courts can resolve disputes concerning civil or property rights."
However, the court noted that "[c]ertainly, in this case, where both sides agreed to let the court determine the eligibility of the voters, this court has the authority to hear the case." Since the parties had agreed to allow the courts to resolve questions concerning voter eligibility, the only issue to be decided was whether or not the trial court erred in throwing out the votes of the senior minister and his wife on the basis of church custom.
The court concluded, on the basis of the expert testimony of 2 witnesses, that there was in fact a church custom against allowing a senior minister or his spouse to vote on matters affecting the minister's position. One of the expert witnesses was a former pastor of the church, and the other was legal counsel to the Alabama Baptist Convention. Accordingly, the trial court had correctly ruled that the votes of the senior minister and his wife should not be counted, and the resulting vote was 58 in favor of dismissing the minister and 57 against.
This case demonstrates that the civil courts will supervise church elections and make determinations regarding eligible voters, when asked by both sides to do so. Of course, in deciding who are eligible voters, a civil court will have to rely on the church's bylaws, customs, and the testimony of expert witnesses. Without the consent of both sides, many courts would consider such disputes to be ecclesiastical in nature and beyond their jurisdiction. In such a case, the dispute would be resolved internally.
See also "Clergy—removal," Franzen v. Poulos, 604 So.2d 1260 (Fla. App. 3 Dist. 1992).