CHURCH ELECTIONS DISPUTES

Generally, the problem with elections at local churches that result in lawsuits is a failure to have a clear membership roll by which to identify voters or a failure to have a governing document with a clear election procedure.  We have reported on courts that refused to take any action in either event because church governance is routinely held to be outside the jurisdiction of a court.  Other courts believe the Neutral Principles of Law, typically found in state non-profit or general corporation statutes, can resolve an election issue so it remains within their jurisdiction.  In these courts, the process is the question, not the merits of the election or the outcome.

In Chung v Kim, Unpublished Slip Op. (Cal. App. 2022), the trial court set aside the results of the first purported election of church leadership and ordered that a second be held pursuant to the procedures imposed by the Court.  The procedures crafted by the Court were largely taken from the church By Laws.  Implicit in the opinion is that the trial court was working off a translation of the By Laws into English.  In challenging the second election conducted under the trial court’s order, the challengers submitted a second translated set of By Laws.  Exactly how the second translation differed from the first was not reported in the opinion.  In any event, the trial court refused to consider the second translation or overturn the second election.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court.

In courts that will hear disputes about the process by which church leadership is elected in congregational churches, clear By Laws will almost always carry the day if the voters can be identified by a membership roll that appears to be legitimate.  The risk of failure to have both is a battle for control between factions.  The underlying issues that created the two factions will rarely be aired on the merits because nearly all courts will see that as straying into areas shielded by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.

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