Category: church splits

LAY MEMBER IMMUNITY – SORT OF

The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception limit secular court intrusion into church employment decisions regarding ministers and other employees.  While it is generally the limitations on employment law protection of “other employees” about which the courts struggle, it is possible for these doctrines to limit or preclude other claims.  For example, can a pastor fired by a church or denomination sue, rather than the church or denomination, a member of their church regarding their role in the loss of employment?

In Father Jim Tracy v O’Bell, et al, Slip Op. (Pa. Supp. 2021) an intermediate appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the lay members sued by the former pastor.  The former pastor alleged that alleged tortious interference with his employment contract was the goal of the defamation by the lay member defendants.  The Plaintiff alleged the defendants defamed him with the intent of causing the church to terminate his employment.  Plaintiff claimed he found a large amount of cash in a file cabinet and the lay members claimed the Plaintiff was not financially responsible with church funds.  The church terminated the Plaintiff.  But, the Plaintiff did not sue the church, but rather sued the lay members the Plaintiff claimed defamed him in their alleged plot to secure his termination.  The trial court was affirmed because the alleged defamatory claims of the lay members, and the allegedly connected firing, were intertwined with the ecclesiastical decision to terminate a clergyman.  The termination decision was made by the church and court inquiry into that decision to determine if it was, indeed, based on the defamation would entangle the court in ecclesiastical governance.

While in the reported case the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, in order to keep the court out of ecclesiastical church governance, had the effect of immunizing lay members the assumption should not be made that it will do so frequently or reliably.  Lay members, even in congregational rather than hierarchical churches, may not be able to defame each other with impunity even if as to the employment of a pastor they might.  Likewise, churches and denominations that do not manage such internal disputes, even if litigation would be ineffectual, may find that there are other consequences and ripple effects, such as to offering plates.

STANDING TO SUE A CHURCH

It should not automatically be assumed in church splits that the minority faction retained any rights to sue.  A minority group of members may have, before suing, erased their interest by taking some action.  Strangers to the church may never have had any interest.

In Dubois Street Church v Church of the Living God, Slip Op. (Mich. App. 2021), the Plaintiff was a new church entity created by former members of the Defendant church.  Indeed, while forming the new church, the former members announced it on social media and invited everyone.  The trial court held the Plaintiff was not the real party in interest.  In other words, the Plaintiff lacked standing to assert any claim because the Plaintiff had no connection to the Defendant church.  The appellate court affirmed the trial court.

A minority faction in a church split might still have an interest upon which to sue the church.  But, once they proceed to form a new church and accept a new membership, and publicly announce it, that interest they had as members might be no more.  Such determinations will likely turn on the record that can be submitted to a court.  In the current era, that record will most likely be social media posts.  In the past it might have been printed flyers or other advertisements.  The lesson might be that the faction retaining control of the church should not assume the minority faction retained any membership upon which to base a lawsuit.  In any event, the new church entity would have no such interest even if its members, as former members, might still have an interest.

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.

THE THIRTY YEARS WAR

History taught us about the folly of wars that lasted decades; The Hundred Years War is an example heard at least passing mention of in some long ago school room. In these reports we have included cases arising from disputes caused by the failure of church founders or long time senior pastors to have succession plans.  The resulting battle for control of church assets is always unseemly and inconsistent with the departed leader’s vision.  Worse, these types of disputes often involve surviving family members that believe they inherited an entitlement to assets but no corresponding duty to develop the skill sets needed to lead.  The problem is worse at the denominational level.

In Trustees of the General Assembly, etc. v Patterson, Memorandum [Opinion] (ED Pa., 2021), the federal district court recited the “almost thirty-year dispute in state court that resulted from the lack of succession planning.  The church consisted of 50 satellite churches in the United States, 6,000 members of which 3,000 member were resident in Philadelphia.  The church founder was the “bishop” and held a lifetime appointment.  The first successor likewise held a lifetime appointment.  The “bishop” had unilateral authority over membership rolls.  The first successor had seven sons and a daughter, some of whom became clergy or trustees.  The battle over succession “created a schism in the church.”  Two factions formed around competing family members.  The majority faction “disfellowshipped” the minority faction.  Each faction claimed they had elected the next “bishop.”  Lawsuits followed that were decided in various courts and forums, including mandatory arbitration.  The arbitration award was set aside by a state court and then later by that state court held to be a final adjudication.  Based on that ruling, the minority faction sought to evict the majority faction from the main church building and the leader of the minority was faction was declared to be the “receiver” of all church assets.  However, the leader of the majority faction was left in office as “bishop,” and would also ostensibly have control.  Thus, the federal court held it was not possible to determine who had control of the church assets based on the arbitration award and enjoined the eviction.  It took the federal court 84 pages and 61 footnotes to navigate the litigation history and reach a conclusion.  The federal court left the factions where they were at the end of the arbitration.

The amazing thing to gain from this report and this court’s opinion was that the membership tolerated this and financed it through a generation and a half of members.  Another amazing thing is that an arbitrator would enter a decision guaranteed to perpetuate the schism by dividing the authority between the factions.  The last amazing thing is that the state judiciary did not make definitive rulings based on the governing documents in the first instance or based on the arbitration award in the second.  The receivership should have been quickly administered and wound up with no delay accepted.  There were either financial irregularities or there were not.