Key point 6-12.04. Most courts refuse to intervene in church disputes concerning the validity of a membership meeting that was not conducted in accordance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents. However, some courts are willing to intervene in such disputes if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.
As noted in the previous section, many courts have been willing to resolve challenges to the legality of actions taken by a church during a membership meeting that was conducted in violation of procedural requirements (i.e., notice, quorum, or voting) specified in the church’s governing documents, so long as no interpretation of church doctrine is required.400 Third Missionary Baptist Church v. Garrett, 158 N.W.2d 771 (Iowa 1968); Hollins v. Edmonds, 616 S.W.2d 801 (Ky. 1981); Bangor Spiritualist Church, Inc. v. Littlefield, 330 A.2d 793 (Me. 1975); Fast v. Smyth, 527 S.W.2d 673 (Mo. 1975); Atkins v. Walker, 200 S.E.2d 641 (N.C. 1973); Old Folk Mission Center v. McTizic, 631 S.W.2d 433 (Tenn. 1981).But other courts have refused to intervene in the internal affairs of churches, and will not review decisions made in church membership meetings even if the church disregarded procedural requirements specified in its governing documents.401 See, e.g., White v. First United Baptist Church, 2002 WL 1575243 (Mich. App. 2002); Rodyk v. Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church, 296 N.Y.S.2d 496 (1968), aff’d, 328 N.Y.S.2d 685 (1972); Hill v. Sargent, 615 S.W.2d 300 (Tex. 1981). This view generally is based on the assumption that the First Amendment prohibits courts from interfering with the purely internal affairs of churches. Such an interpretation of the First Amendment may be too broad under the prevailing interpretation of that Amendment by the United States Supreme Court.
It is true that there is no room for civil court review of any internal church decision based on the interpretation of religious doctrine. On this point all courts would agree. But, many internal church disputes involve the interpretation of purely secular language in church charters, bylaws, deeds, and trusts. The Supreme Court has suggested that there is room for marginal civil court review of the internal decisions of churches and church tribunals where the reviewing court can resolve the dispute solely on the basis of “neutral principles” of law.402 Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979). The Court in Jones expressly repudiated the apparent holding in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976), that the courts must defer to the determinations of religious tribunals within hierarchical churches by noting that the first amendment did not require such a rule where no issue of religious doctrine is involved.The Court specifically held that “neutral principles” of law include nondoctrinal language in charters, deeds, and bylaws. One court in upholding the majority view observed that “we have no hesitancy in holding that this controversy is properly before us, our decisions being controlled entirely by neutral principles of law.”403 Bangor Spiritualist Church, Inc. v. Littlefield, 330 A.2d 793 (Me. 1975).
Procedural requirements pertaining to notice, quorums, and voting generally involve no references to religious doctrine and so actions adopted at a church membership meeting conducted in violation of a church’s procedural requirements occasionally are invalidated by a civil court.404 Id.In the case of incorporated churches, this rule has been justified on the ground that a religious corporation is an artificial entity created by law and capable of acting only in the manner prescribed by state law or its own internal regulations, and therefore compliance with such procedural requirements is a prerequisite to a valid meeting.405 Id.
The subject of civil court intervention in internal church disputes is addressed more fully in chapter 9.
- The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a trial court acted properly in vacating a church election that was conducted in violation of the church’s governing document. The court concluded that it could “properly exercise jurisdiction, given the financial and property rights of the church that were involved … and that the election violated the book of discipline in several material respects and also violated basic standards of due process.” It emphasized that the parties in this case “argue no issues of differences in religious faith or creed, and argue no spiritual conflicts, or ecclesiastical doctrine. Rather, the underlying dispute revolves around the property of the church—control over its financial assets and affairs—and not God.” The court concluded: “The record indeed supports a finding that … the procedures for elections, as enumerated in the book of discipline, were not followed. Thus, we hold today that the trial court did not err in setting aside the election.” 406 Yates v. El Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, 847 So.2d 331 (Ala. 2002).
- A Florida court ruled that a church board’s attempts to amend the articles of incorporation were invalid because procedural requirements were not followed. The court concluded that the First Amendment religion clauses did not prevent it from resolving this dispute since the case “implicates neutral legal principles only” and “precedent supports judicial resolution of the parties’ dispute over corporate assets, the corporation’s religious purposes notwithstanding.” It further observed: “The doctrine of either side is … of no moment here. The courts are not concerned with the articles of faith of either, nor with the question as to whether or not the articles of faith or the religious doctrines of either are respected and observed. The only question which is sought to be presented here which may be addressed to the courts is in regard to the right to control the church property. The parties have asked neither us nor the trial court to become entangled in essentially religious controversies or intervene on behalf of groups espousing particular doctrinal beliefs.” 407 The Word of Life Ministry, Inc. v. Miller, 778 So.2d 360 (Fla. App. 2001). See also Rosenberger v. Jamison, 72 So.3d 199 (Fla. App. 2011).
- A New Jersey court held that procedural irregularities in a congregational meeting did not affect the congregation’s vote to affiliate with a denomination. A local congregation was duly informed that a vote would be taken at its annual business meeting on whether or not to affiliate with the Catholic Church. The pastor of the church adjourned the business meeting and rescheduled it for a week later to allow representatives of the Catholic Church to speak. At the rescheduled meeting the congregation voted to affiliate with the Catholic Church. Members who voted against the affiliation sought a court order invalidating the vote on the ground that it was conducted at an improperly called meeting. The dissenters pointed out that the church’s bylaws specified that only the board of trustees had the authority to adjourn and reschedule congregational meetings. The court concluded it would not invalidate the vote of the congregation despite the fact that the meeting was conducted in violation of the church’s bylaws. It based this result on two factors. First, the civil courts have the authority to resolve property disputes within local congregations so long as they can do so without interpreting religious doctrine. There were two property interests involved in this case, the court observed—”the right to worship in a familiar surrounding,” and a lease agreement entered into between the congregation and Catholic Church following the vote to affiliate. Second, the court concluded that the subject of the congregational meeting (whether or not to affiliate with the Catholic Church) was religious in nature and therefore the civil courts had no authority to interfere with what was done even though the bylaws had been violated. The court observed: “This court can discern a no more spiritual matter than a determination by the congregation of who should shepherd its flock. The majority of the congregation … chose to invite the priests of [the Catholic Church] to be its spiritual leaders. … To invalidate [the meeting and vote] would subjugate the will of the majority on the basis of a minor procedural infraction.” 408 Ardito v. Board of Trustees, 658 A.2d 327 (N.J. Super. Ch. 1995).
- A New York court ruled that a congregational meeting called by members of a synagogue to vote on the rehiring of a dismissed rabbi was not valid since it was not called according to the synagogue’s bylaws. The synagogue’s membership was bitterly divided over the continued retention of their rabbi. The dispute was submitted to an arbitration panel which ruled that the synagogue’s board of trustees was authorized to discontinue the rabbi’s employment. In response to this ruling, a group of ten members called for a special meeting “concerning the tenure of our rabbi.” At this meeting, the membership voted to rehire the rabbi. Members of the congregation asked a civil court to determine the legality of this special meeting, and the vote that was taken. A court ruled that the meeting was legally invalid because it was not called in accordance with the synagogue’s bylaws. The bylaws permit any ten members to call for a special meeting, provided that at least five days notice of the meeting is given to members by the recording secretary. The court concluded that “since it is clear that the notice was not sent by the secretary of the synagogue, as required by the bylaws, to the members in good standing as of the date of mailing, I declare that the [special business meeting] was not validly held.” 409 Holler v. Goldberg, 623 N.Y.S.2d 512 (Sup. 1995). See also Smith v. Ebenezer Baptist Church, 949 N.Y.S.2d 119 (N.Y.A.D. 2012).
- An Ohio court ruled that a church business meeting was invalid since the pastor had moved the time of the meeting from “immediately following the morning service” to 1:00 PM that afternoon. 410 Mt. Eaton Community Church, Inc. v. Ladrach, 2009 WL 56923 (Ohio App. 2009).