FINDING A BURNING BUSH — CHURCH DOCUMENT AUTHENTICATION

When a church split spills out into the street and ends up in court in a jurisdiction that will apply neutral principles to decide the case, each side should be prepared to provide authenticated documentation of their right to own the church property or rule the church.

Church property title can often be established by documents publicly filed or denominational documents owned by many different people.  But, when church property ownership turns on identification of the church leadership, especially on the local church level, church document authentication can become a challenging issue because many local churches are not good record keepers and not all foundational documents are filed in the public record.  Getting a volunteer church officer or a part-time secretary to timely find and authenticate a document can be a challenge.  Finding a corporate seal or encouraging those volunteers to appear before a notary can be a challenge, too.  Local churches often do not have and cannot find corporate minutes for the current year, much less years past.  Finding a burning bush is sometimes less stressful.

In a bankruptcy adversary proceeding, First Korean Christian Church v DW Kim, Memorandum Decision (Bankr. ND CA, 2017), in order to rebut a claim he had been defrocked by the denomination, the former pastor submitted an unsigned and unauthenticated document.  The unauthenticated document purportedly indicated a reversal of the decision of the disciplinary authority of the denomination to strip the pastor of his credentials.  The former pastor also claimed the court did not have jurisdiction to decide the question of his denominational credentialing or whether he could serve as pastor of the local congregation.  The Court rejected the unauthenticated document and based on the authenticated documents granted judgment to the local church and the denomination.

In many cases, if a contested document is not authenticated, it can be rejected as proof by a court without anything further.  Also, a document that is not authenticated will typically not provide the basis for a challenge to an authenticated document.

In a church or denomination, sometimes the proof has to be marshalled as to whether the authenticating or endorsing witness actually has the authority to authenticate or endorse a document because to an outsider the authority may not be readily apparent or identifiable.  This is especially true of denominations that have governing boards that meet infrequently if such a board is the only authority that can authenticate or delegate the authority to do so.  In other words, sometimes a witness must be found that can testify truthfully that the authenticating or endorsing witness actually has authority to do so.  Sometimes, as noted above, it is the burning bush one must find.

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