CHURCH SPLITS: MONEY GRABS

We reported a case out of Florida in January 2020 in which the founding pastor died leading to a succession civil war.  See, Church Succession Title Bouts.  In Eglise Baptiste v Seminole Tribe, Omnibus Order, 19-cv-62591 (SD FL, 2020), aff’d, 824 F. Appx 680 (11th Cir. 2020), the battle for control of the church was marked by a congregational meeting that turned into a brawl that required police intervention to restore order.  Apparently, a congregational vote survived the brawl and the wife of the late pastor led the winning faction elected by the congregation to succeed.  The following week the worship service led by the losing faction was interrupted by the widow and her faction.  They retook the church building from the “losing” faction accompanied by “six armed officers from the Seminole [Tribal] Police Department.”  The widow’s faction’s opponents were removed from the church property, the locks changed, and the gates to the property locked.  The “losing” faction sued the Seminole Tribe but could not defeat the tribe’s sovereign immunity.  The widow and her faction were also dismissed from the lawsuit because the Plaintiff’s claims represented “non-justiciable questions of church governance” excluded from review by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.

The next chapter follows.

In Eglise Baptiste v Bank of America, NA, Slip Op. (FL. App. 4th 2021), the “losing” faction sued alleging the bank accounts of the church were wrongfully transferred to the “winning” successor faction led by the deceased founding pastor’s widow.  The trial court dismissed the case holding that to determine the issue of which faction was the “winner” and which was the “loser,” and whether the widow of the pastor had authority or was a rightful leadership successor, would require intrusion of the Court prohibited by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine into internal church management affairs.  The appellate court affirmed the dismissal.

The lesson is the same for both cases and both of our reports.  Most courts will not play referee in a title bout between factions in a church split.  If there is a documented congregational vote in congregational churches or a hierarchical action in denominational churches, and if the vote or action is arguably consistent with organizational governing documents, such as bylaws, even should a court need to address property ownership or control, usually those are the facts that will control the decision.  A written succession plan adopted by the governing authority of the church or the denomination, or both may, if drafted with sufficient clarity and due regard for other laws, such as rules against perpetuities, which may or may not apply to churches, be a determinative piece of evidence.

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