GROWTH BY FISSION THROUGH LITIGATION

From the outside looking in, many church splits seem driven by primal urges rather than any spiritual forces.  Admittedly, to those involved in the dispute, spiritual or doctrinal issues might seem to be driving the clash, but from the outside, those issues may not be visible or understood.  A Court cannot become entangled in the spiritual or doctrinal issues, if there are any, and even if the Court understands the spiritual or doctrinal issue.  Thus, that may leave a Court using secular law, neutral principles of law, to settle a church split.

In Brother Alger Mullins v Jim Wicker, 2017 Ohio 5663 (Ohio App., 4th Dist., 2017), on a split decision, 2-1, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s Judgment which had the effect of acknowledging the two factions had, indeed, split the church into two separate churches.  Both sides were enjoined from interfering with the use of the church property by the opponent.  One group had the church property on even weekends and the other had the property on odd weekends.  Each became responsible for half of the expenses and no expenses could be incurred on behalf of both without consent from both.  The church was congregation, i.e., self-governing.

The appellate opinion also was interesting because of its recital of other court resolved church splits in other cases that resulted in published or otherwise available opinions. Further, the appellate opinion was a split decision because one of the three judges on the panel dissented on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds.  The result of a decision based on the dissent would have been to leave the factions stuck in their dispute until they either resolved it, one party finally drove off the other, or an unpaid church vendor or property mishap ended the congregation’s ownership of the property.  Of course, arguably, the mutual injunctions might have the same effect.  The dispute between the factions also involved whether adult female members could vote and whether the congregation should be a member of an association of congregations.

One other interesting fact that might have accounted for the outcome was that the church held a monthly business meeting and maintained meetings of those minutes, but otherwise there were no bylaws or other governing documents.  The governance through the monthly church business meeting broke down when each side decided to expel the other and each side began to conduct business meetings without inviting all of the members of the church.  The meeting minutes were the governance documents for decades until the minutes were no longer recognized by both sides.

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