“WELL DOC, IT ALL STARTED WITH A CHURCH BOARD MEETING.” In secular law briefings I have given before denominational gatherings and conferences for church leaders over the years the first line in all capital letters of this entry is often my opening line. Most church splits, employment issues, and battles over a Pastor start at the church board meeting. In the case under discussion, the church board in a congregational church (a church with only local control and no denominational control, other ties notwithstanding) decided not to call a congregational vote when requested to do so by members. It seemed that the bylaws of the church required a congregational vote when called for by a member or a group of members. In this case, Hawkins v St. John Missionary Baptist Church, Slip. Op. (Cal. Civ. App. 2017), the vote demanded was a congregational vote to keep or remove the Pastor.
The member or group of members not given a congregational vote sued to enforce the bylaws. The trial court held that enforcing the bylaws was not ecclesiastical and therefore not shielded from court review. The trial court appointed a referee to conduct a congregational meeting and the vote. The first problem the referee had to solve was to identify the members. After that determination, then it had to be determined whether each member was an eligible voter. The church (acting through the board) developed a membership list for the referee but omitted three members by mistake. But, the referee would not allow the error to be corrected. The three omitted members’ votes were sealed in an envelope by the referee. The referee, the church board, the group challenging the Pastor, and the trial court did not know how the three voted. (However, it seems likely that both sides knew the three members well enough to forecast their votes. The board was seeking the counting of the three votes and the challengers were seeking to enforce the referee’s ruling excluding them.) Without counting the votes of the three disqualified members, the referee held that the votes cast were 264 votes to retain the Pastor and 265 votes to terminate him. The trial court accepted the referee’s ruling.
The appellate court reversed the trial court decision, and thus the referee’s, and ordered the three votes counted. (This seems to have put the board and the Pastor on top.) The court held that the grounds for rejecting the correction of the membership list, Robert’s Rules of Order, did not apply because the votes’ impact on the plebiscite were unknown and Robert’s Rules only prohibited such a change if the impact on the final tally was known in advance. The court did not reach the question about a fourth voter: a woman that was an ineligible minor when the list was created by the church board but was eighteen at the time of the vote and eligible. She had been deemed ineligible by the referee. Because her vote would not change the outcome either way, the court did not reach it.
Implicit in the rulings of the trial court and the appellate court was an unspoken criticism of the church board for not calling the requested meeting as required by the bylaws. Also, the appellate court asked the church to amend its bylaws to avoid future problems by specifying what was meant in the bylaws by “good standing.” In addition to the four members discussed above, seven additional members were deemed ineligible to vote on “good standing” grounds. The referee would have benefited from an up to date membership list that had been carefully checked. It is unlikely the referee knew, but the court might have, just how difficult up to date membership records are for churches to maintain. For example, if the bylaws state the person is not eligible to vote if they have not attended in a year, what is the record that provides the date of last attendance? If the bylaws put the power to unilaterally make an eligibility determination in the church board, is there a limit on when the board can change the determination? Of course, bylaws are not needed until they are needed, so there is tendency not to review them periodically. Annual review seems to make the most sense.