Churches may exist in the spiritual world and secular world but their money and property tend to exist in the secular world more so than in the spiritual. Therefore, a court will avoid spiritual issues pursuant to the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine of the First Amendment but may conclude it has jurisdiction over money and property.
In Beyene, et al v Tekle, et al, Slip Op. (Wash. App. 2019), the decision of the trial court abstaining on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds was revered because the appellate court believed there were questions of fact regarding jurisdictional issues. The current chairman of the church testified it was hierarchical and led by its denominational authority while a priest of many years testified it was congregational and led by its priests and deacons. Apparently, the governing documents were not clear. The priest, a former church treasurer, and a founding member testified the financial allegations raised by the Plaintiff against former board members of financial misconduct were not ecclesiastical but were secular and corporate. The trial court on remand was ordered to weigh the jurisdictional facts and determine if the claims presented were, indeed, secular or ecclesiastical.
In all probability the purpose for which money is collected and spent will be ecclesiastical unless it can be proven the money was embezzled or spent for transparently improper purposes. Spending on personal expenses that are not documented reimbursements will remain more or less easily identified as improper but spending on “improper” purposes will not always be. What was improper a decade ago may not be improper next week or next century.