CHURCH SPLIT LAWSUIT TEMPTATION

Church split lawsuits will sometimes be cases that lack sustainable claims.  Courts will rarely be able to consider ecclesiastical matters or minister employment cases on the merits.  The lack of a sustainable claim does not mean the case was automatically frivolous.  A frivolous claim typically lacks any basis in law or fact.  Usually, church split lawsuits have a basis in fact or law but not enough to sustain a successful claim.  This is not unique to church lawsuits; cases are often dismissed in all areas of law.

In Cho v Choi, et al., Slip Op. (NJ Supp. App. 2018), it took the appellate court only two pages in a per curiam decision to affirm the motion to dismiss granted by the trial court.  The Plaintiff brought four defamation cases against fellow members and a lawsuit against the pastor.  The defamation claimed was that in a public congregational meeting the defendants allegedly stated the Plaintiff was “try to take over the church” and would foreclose on the church if it defaulted on the loan Plaintiff made to the church.  The Court held these statements were either true, and therefore not defamatory, or simply not defamatory.  The Court held the claim alleging the pastor was not qualified could not be reached by the Court because the credentialing of the pastor was ecclesiastical.  The Court held that whether the pastor’s credentialing complied with the denominational handbook was an ecclesiastical matter.

Defamation cases are difficult to pursue and usually the alleged wrongdoer would be insufficiently solvent to make a case economical.  Ministerial employment cases are sufficiently problematic that if the qualifications for office of the hiring board members can be challenged that approach would have a greater chance for success.

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