While numerous court opinions have been reported previously that involved church splits of varying degrees of nuisance, expense, or even violence, few have inspired nearly 21,000 words in over 70 pages. Usually, the issue is in the end simple: a court will not hear or review pastoral employment or church governance decisions. A court may review governance documents and state non-profit corporation law to determine who gets to make the choices, and more importantly, control the accounts and property, but the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine generally is a hedge a court will not cross. Church split litigation usually consumes tithes and offerings for attorney fees at an alarming rate that threatens survival of the local church. Church split litigation often seems to convince some courts that church governance immunity does not work outside of denominational governance.
In Bookout v Shelley, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. Fort Worth 2022), the exact outer limit of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine had to be determined on various theories of recovery. The appellate court opinion began by characterizing the case as an “internecine battle for control” of the church. To resolve the issues, took 21,000 words and over 70 pages. The trial court denied a motion to dismiss based on the Texas Citizens Participation Act (“TCPA”). The TCPA, like many Texas statutes had a worthy political remedial goal in mind but the draftsmanship applied to the TCPA by the legislature left no corral fence. Most of the appellate court’s opinion regarding TCPA claims will be omitted because outside of Texas it probably will be of no interest. The church split was brought to a head when the former pastor resigned due to alleged sexual improprieties. The Appellants claimed they were the duly elected board of directors for the church, terminated the new pastor, and seized control of church bank accounts and property. The Appellees claimed they were the duly elected board. Appellees also claimed the Appellants converted church funds, in part by paying their lawyer $40,000. The alleged change of leadership from one board to another was accomplished by alleged forgeries of corporate documents. The documents were never filed of record with the state. Corporate documents were allegedly also created to install the board and these were filed with the state. Each side adopted new bylaws to obtain favorable governance documents. One of the Appellants took to social media videos to accuse one of the Appellees of being a “sodomite,” abusing his children, and embezzlement. The appellate court held the accusations of abusing children and embezzlement had no Ecclesiastical implications and could be heard as any other defamation claim. The accusations of being a “sodomite” were Ecclesiastical accusations, the court held, and could not be heard. The reason for termination of the new pastor set forth in a termination letter, “due to many irregularities in the accounting, managing, and handling of donations to the church,” was a defamation claim that could be determined, the court held, under Neutral Principles of Law. The issue of eligible church leadership could be determined under Neutral Principles of Law by reviewing the governance documents.
The attempt to summarize the case reported in less than 1,000 words probably has resulted in a report that omits many things valuable to a Texas practitioner. The elements of each claim were carefully enumerated and analyzed both in terms of Texas law and the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. This church split, like too many we have reported, should have been mediated and reasonable people would likely have settled matters. A good settlement is one in which no one is completely satisfied but everyone can live with it. Further, defamation as a way of resolving church disputes has been proven repeatedly, and herein reported repeatedly, as a losing tactic. Persons engaging in it, even if somehow justified in an Ecclesiastical sense, will appear to be unreasonable and not believable when reviewed by anybody and everybody else. From the outside of the incestuous emotions of a church split, observers are left wondering if there are adults in charge. Church factions that insist upon scorched earth tactics, announcing their allegations after a trumpet blast, e.g., social media videos, may wreck the church but will not likely prevail.