Local churches governed by the congregation, even if they are also a member of a denomination, are generally either associations or corporations. If they are associations, the only governance question is whether there was a vote of the eligible voting members and the result. Neutral Principles generally allow courts to referee those elections. Also, incorporated churches typically have bylaws or statutory corporate governance rules to follow. Neutral Principles generally allow courts to referee those elections. Once the eligible voting membership casts ballots and a decision is reached, the courts typically fell comfortable enforcing those decision.
In Pule v Macomber, Slip Op. (D. Ha., 2018), the church split spilled into the street and at least one side allegedly enlisted the local police department. The Plaintiffs alleged they were locked out and threatened with charges of trespassing. The Plaintiffs allegedly tried to amend the bylaws to extend their two year terms as officers of the church until the litigation was concluded. A court could probably decide the validity of the amendment under Neutral Principles. The Plaintiffs alleged that the private citizen defendants conspired with the non-party local police to violate their civil rights. The claims survived a Motion to Dismiss and the conspiracy claim, even though the police and police agency were not named defendants, was sufficient for federal question jurisdiction in federal court. How the case may ultimately conclude may still be years in the future.
Generally, if a court will decide which side was elected to office, which can be a messy business as has been seen in other cases reported herein, the prevailing faction’s decisions are implicitly validated. That decision will turn on the language of the bylaws, the documentation of elections compliant with the bylaws, and the documentation of congregational voting. One of the decisions generally validated is the hiring or termination of clergy. Clergy employment decisions are typically out of reach as required by the Ministerial Exception Doctrine. But, once the officers have been confirmed in office and identity, the employment issue is usually rendered moot.