Pastor, Church & Law

Judicial Supervision of Church Elections

§ 06.12.05

Key point 6-12.05. Some courts will supervise church elections to ensure compliance with the procedural requirements specified in the church’s governing documents if they can do so without inquiring into religious doctrine or polity.

Some courts have been willing to supervise a church election to ensure compliance with applicable procedural requirements if the church requests such supervision or if certain members allege that the church has disregarded procedural requirements in the past.411 First Union Baptist Church v. Banks, 533 So.2d 1305 (La. App. 1988); LeBlanc v. Davis, 432 So.2d 239 (La. 1983); Fast v. Smyth, 527 S.W.2d 673 (Mo. 1975); Second Baptist Church v. Mount Zion Baptist Church, 466 P.2d 212 (Nev. 1970); Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of St. Bartholomew’s Church v. Committee to Preserve St. Bartholomew’s Church, 56 N.Y.2d 71 (1982). To illustrate, in one case, former members who had been expelled by their church asserted that the meeting at which the congregation voted to expel them had not been called with adequate notice. The trial court held that the meeting at which the dissidents had been expelled was invalid due to inadequate notice. It also scheduled an election at which the congregation would determine, by majority vote, the proper membership of the church; prescribed the notice to be given; provided for the counting of ballots by a court officer; and ordered an accounting of all church funds. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld the decision of the trial court, noting that “it is proper for the courts to inquire whether a congregational meeting, at which church business is to be transacted, was preceded by adequate notice to the full membership, and whether, once called, the meeting was conducted in an orderly manner and the expulsion was the act of the authority within the church having the power to order it.”412 McKinney v. Twenty-fifth Avenue Baptist Church, Inc., 514 So.2d 837 (Ala. 1987).However, “once the court is presented with sufficient evidence regarding the regularity of the meeting, it will then generally refuse to inquire further as to the fruits of the meeting.”

On the other hand, the same court ruled that it had no authority to determine which members in a Baptist church are qualified to vote in a church election. A dispute arose in a local Baptist church, and certain members petitioned a state trial court to order a church election to resolve the matter. At the election the votes of 35 individuals were challenged and not counted. The result of the ballots counted was a 74 to 74 tie. One group of members petitioned the court to have the challenged votes counted. The trial court refused to grant this request, noting that “if this court ordered the challenged ballots to be counted, it would be determining that they were members who were eligible to vote. This it cannot do. …”

The court acknowledged that its refusal to order the challenged ballots to be counted “leaves the [church] without redress in the courts for even arbitrary acts of a preacher in either falsely challenging voters or intentionally bringing in non-members to vote.” However, the trial court concluded that “there is nothing this court can do about it” since prior rulings of the state supreme court prohibited courts from resolving church membership issues. The trial court’s ruling was appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which agreed that its previous rulings “do not authorize courts to determine the eligibility of church members to vote,” and that “to order that certain votes be counted, which theretofore were not counted, would have been tantamount to doing that very thing, i.e., determining eligibility.” The supreme court concluded: “In each Baptist church the majority of the members of the church control the business of the church. Also, all the members of a Baptist church are entitled to vote at a congregational meeting, regardless of age. However, the issue as to which members are eligible to vote is a matter within the discretion of the members of the church. … Because each Baptist church is a democratic institution whose membership possesses the right to vote, perforce it is the church itself under its rules that must examine the eligibility of its individual members to participate in that democracy.”413 Mount Olive Baptist Church v. Williams, 529 So.2d 972 (Ala. 1988).

Another court ruled that it had the authority to order a church election since the church board refused to call one.414 Willis v. Davis, 323 S.W.2d 847 (Ky. 1959).

Case studies

  • 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. 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 “certainly, 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.” 415 Bacher v. Metcalf, 611 So.2d 1030 (Ala. 1992).
  • A Georgia court ruled that a trial court did not violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom when it intervened in a local church dispute and called a supervised membership meeting to determine the identity of lawful voting members. The court concluded: “The trial court did not exceed its authority, as it limited the election procedures to resolving the issue of which faction represented the majority, the only proper question before the court. Moreover, the election called for majority rule, which was in compliance with church practice and the law governing congregational churches.” 416 Howard v. Johnson, 592 S.E.2d 93 (Ga. App. 2003).
  • A Missouri court ordered the trial court to call a meeting of a church’s members to elect a board in compliance with state law. 417 First Missionary Baptist Church v. Rollins, 151 S.W.3d 846 (Mo. App. 2004).
  • A Texas state appeals court concluded that a trial court had the authority to call a new church election. The court defended the trial court’s action by noting that “an election was held which resulted in [the pastor’s discharge], that he has refused to accept the termination, that he has since interfered with church services and will continue to do so … and will dissipate funds and property owned by the church unless he is restrained from doing so.” The court rejected the pastor’s claim that the trial court’s intervention violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. It noted that “the vote of a majority of the members of a Baptist church is generally binding in any matter touching the church government or affairs,” and that “rules and regulations, including election procedures, made by church functionaries or by long usage will be enforced by the civil courts if not in conflict with some civil law bearing upon the subject of such rules and regulations.” It concluded that the trial court had “sought to act in accord with church rules and regulations as dictated by long established custom and usage” and accordingly did “not usurp church authority.” 418 Ex parte McClain, 762 S.W.2d 238 (Tex. App. 1988).
  • A Washington court ruled that a church’s election of new board members was legally invalid because the church failed to comply with state nonprofit corporation law in providing the members with notice of the meeting. The court ordered a court-supervised election of board members, consistent with state nonprofit corporation law. It concluded that this order did not violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom since “the issues in this case are not ecclesiastical but rather concern property rights and nonprofit corporate law.” 419 Kidisti Sellassie Orthodox Tewehado Eritrean Church v. Medlin, 2003 WL 22000635 (Wash. App. 2003).

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