Pastors, priests and professional ministers will sometimes bristle at the idea of “lay persons” infiltrating their profession and exercising their duties and functions. It should come as no surprise that in secular courts, the church entity, typically a corporation or association, cannot be represented by the clergy but must be represented by a lawyer. The “must” is not enforced by the lawyers, their advocacy for or against the law notwithstanding, but rather by the courts.
In Horowitz v Stewart Title, Order (D. Haw. 2017) the church leadership brought suit on behalf of the church corporation against a title company to enforce a real estate title insurance policy. The case was dismissed because the church corporation was not represented by a lawyer. The dismissal was “without prejudice” because the church corporation could engage counsel and refile the case (within certain time limits). The church leadership had no claims in their individual capacities so their claims were dismissed. The transfers of title and the attempts through foreclosure to obtain clear title were sufficiently convoluted that a more careful study of the court file would be required to accurately trace the motives and rights of the participants. However, the allegation was that the real estate title in question was worth $6,000,000. That would seem, if true, to have been enough to justify retention of competent legal counsel.
Nevertheless, the lesson to this point is that a church entity cannot represent itself in court and it cannot be represented by non-lawyer clergy or leadership. That same rule applies to every corporate or alter ego entity and that is the law in every state or federal court. The reason it probably should be the law, beyond my own bias in favor of full employment for lawyers, is that the entity may represent the assets and capital of a group of people, whether they be stockholders, stakeholders, donors or other participants and courts and governments want a licensed lawyer representing such group ownership so that accountability may be imposed when needed.