There is sometimes a thin line between ecclesiastical language in church bylaws and secular language intended to satisfy state law requirements. Enforcement of church bylaws is generally possible in a contract action in a secular court. However, religious language in bylaws may not be.
In Weare Bible Baptist Church v Fuller, Slip Op. (NH, 2019), the New Hampshire trial court tried to enforce the bylaws as written using its contempt powers. The founding pastor was permanently incapacitated by stroke. The wife of the founding pastor refused to give up the parsonage resulting in its loss of property tax exemption. The wife also led a faction, primarily of family members, that usurped the corporate seal and office of the Treasurer. Using the corporate seal, the wife’s faction attempted to terminate the successor pastor’s employment and notified the Secretary of State in a writing sealed with the corporate seal that only the wife’s faction retained control of the corporation. Resolution of the issues in the trial court required a three day evidentiary hearing that included testimony from an expert witness in denominational practice and polity. The appellate court reversed and remanded ordering the trial court to consider only deeds, trusts, and statutes. If the trial court could not resolve ownership and control issues with those documents, church governance documents would next be considered but only within the confines of Neutral Principles of Law.
The opinion is silent regarding whether the disabled pastor was provided for through disability insurance or other church purchased safety nets. The opinion is silent regarding whether the parsonage was fungible in some reasonable manner. The silence prevents a determination as to motivations: such as whether the wife was trying to retain control or was acting in desperation because of an involuntarily imposed vow of poverty. The lesson that can be gleaned however is that religious language in bylaws can be internally enforced by the church or not at all. To be enforced regarding corporate governance rather than church governance, the bylaws should give unto Ceasar.