Church split lawsuits will sometimes be cases that lack sustainable claims. Courts will rarely be able to consider ecclesiastical matters or minister employment cases on the merits. The lack of a sustainable claim does not mean the case was automatically frivolous. A frivolous claim typically lacks any basis in law or fact. Usually, church split lawsuits have a basis in fact or law but not enough to sustain a successful claim. This is not unique to church lawsuits; cases are often dismissed in all areas of law.
In Cho v Choi, et al., Slip Op. (NJ Supp. App. 2018), it took the appellate court only two pages in a per curiam decision to affirm the motion to dismiss granted by the trial court. The Plaintiff brought four defamation cases against fellow members and a lawsuit against the pastor. The defamation claimed was that in a public congregational meeting the defendants allegedly stated the Plaintiff was “try to take over the church” and would foreclose on the church if it defaulted on the loan Plaintiff made to the church. The Court held these statements were either true, and therefore not defamatory, or simply not defamatory. The Court held the claim alleging the pastor was not qualified could not be reached by the Court because the credentialing of the pastor was ecclesiastical. The Court held that whether the pastor’s credentialing complied with the denominational handbook was an ecclesiastical matter.
Defamation cases are difficult to pursue and usually the alleged wrongdoer would be insufficiently solvent to make a case economical. Ministerial employment cases are sufficiently problematic that if the qualifications for office of the hiring board members can be challenged that approach would have a greater chance for success.
Courts often resolve disputes in ways that neither side wanted, liked, or ever believed was a possible outcome. This is especially true in church litigation when courts find jurisdiction to decide one issue in a church split but lack jurisdiction to decide other issues. The partial rulings that result may also leave some disputes only partly resolved.
In Davis v New Zion Baptist Church, Slip Op., (NC App. 2018), the church split spilled into the street resulting in trial court proceedings that led to an appeal in 2015, was remanded for additional proceedings, and appealed a second time. The combatants in this church split certainly believed in full employment for lawyers. The church bylaws were not followed in 2013 when the then church leadership attempted to amend them. Further, the bylaws were so badly written there was no procedure for removal of church board members and no procedure for elections of replacements. The trial court held the attempted bylaw amendments in 2013 were void based on “neutral principles of law.” The trial court reasoned, as did the prior appeal ruling, that bylaws governed more than ecclesiastical matters, such as property, finances and contracts, and were subject to neutral principles of law. The trial court refused to rule on whether the church board members were properly elected but ordered the church to hold general elections within 90 days. The court of appeals affirmed the voiding of the bylaw amendments but reversed the election order, holding that because the bylaws were silent as to election procedure, that was solely an internal church matter. The net result was that the church leadership remained in office pending future elections but the bylaw amendments would have to be resubmitted in accord with the bylaws. Also, the church leadership decision to disfellowship the Plaintiffs did not impact the lawsuit because the alleged wrongs occurred while they were still members but the court did not reverse their loss of membership.
One lesson to be drawn is that bylaws matter and should be competently drafted and regularly updated with the help of a lawyer hired to assist. The lawyer selected for the task should know something of the corporation laws of the state of incorporation of the church. The adoption of bylaws and amendments should be carefully implemented using the language of the bylaws. Bylaws should be considered regularly and not during controversy. The temptation to tweak the bylaws for advantage becomes too strong at such times. Another lesson is the “official” church membership rolls should be maintained and updated at least annually in congregation run churches. Regular updates will mean that when they are needed to determine who can vote they will be available and most probably were last updated outside of the time when a controversy arose. Both of these lessons, bylaws and membership rolls, are as important or more important for the church with one hundred members as the church with a thousand members. Church split lawsuits usually involve smaller rather than larger churches.
When a church split spills into the street and the parties decide to hire counsel and resolve it in court, there can be consequences beyond wounded feelings that do not soon abate. It is possible that overly aggressive seizures of control, even usurpation by fraudulent means, can lead to court imposed penalties or restrictions authorized under state corporations statutes.
In Sikh Temple Turlock v Chahal, Slip Op. (Unpublished) (CA App. 5th, 2018), the church split, which involved a violent altercation at one point, resulted in competing church boards between which the trial court had to choose. The trial court determined that the latter of the two boards “fraudulently” took authority over the church and reinstated the prior board. In addition, the “usurpers” were barred from sitting on the church board for five years. The court of appeals affirmed. The appellate court viewed the five year bar as a reasonable action authorized by the state corporations statute and a good “cooling off period.” The court also noted that the invalid election upon which the challengers were relying never happened. However, it was deemed not valid because there was no documentation of a valid membership list as there was for the earlier election and thus no proof there had been a quorum.
Reading between the lines of the opinion, the church seemed to be suffering from antipathy of the congregation toward serving on the board. Also, the long serving, and maybe long suffering, valid board members may have become insufficiently motivated to keep current membership lists and to require the congregation to adhere to the bylaws regarding governance. This may have created the chaotic opening that resulted in competing boards, the latter of which tried to lock out the earlier in what the trial court viewed as a “fraudulent” usurpation. The lessons seem obvious.
Local churches governed by the congregation, even if they are also a member of a denomination, are generally either associations or corporations. If they are associations, the only governance question is whether there was a vote of the eligible voting members and the result. Neutral Principles generally allow courts to referee those elections. Also, incorporated churches typically have bylaws or statutory corporate governance rules to follow. Neutral Principles generally allow courts to referee those elections. Once the eligible voting membership casts ballots and a decision is reached, the courts typically fell comfortable enforcing those decision.
In Pule v Macomber, Slip Op. (D. Ha., 2018), the church split spilled into the street and at least one side allegedly enlisted the local police department. The Plaintiffs alleged they were locked out and threatened with charges of trespassing. The Plaintiffs allegedly tried to amend the bylaws to extend their two year terms as officers of the church until the litigation was concluded. A court could probably decide the validity of the amendment under Neutral Principles. The Plaintiffs alleged that the private citizen defendants conspired with the non-party local police to violate their civil rights. The claims survived a Motion to Dismiss and the conspiracy claim, even though the police and police agency were not named defendants, was sufficient for federal question jurisdiction in federal court. How the case may ultimately conclude may still be years in the future.
Generally, if a court will decide which side was elected to office, which can be a messy business as has been seen in other cases reported herein, the prevailing faction’s decisions are implicitly validated. That decision will turn on the language of the bylaws, the documentation of elections compliant with the bylaws, and the documentation of congregational voting. One of the decisions generally validated is the hiring or termination of clergy. Clergy employment decisions are typically out of reach as required by the Ministerial Exception Doctrine. But, once the officers have been confirmed in office and identity, the employment issue is usually rendered moot.
When a church split spills into the street it is always interesting to see which issue the contestants chose to take into the courthouse. Typically, the contestants will pick issues that are emotionally charged but which they lack fundamental evidence to substantiate. Membership roll qualification and verification is usually the most needed but the least well documented in a church split. The old guard seems to feel the need to prove their voting eligibility the least as if some sort of presumption will carry their claims. The challengers to the old order usually have the better documentation of membership either because their memberships are the more recent or they planned it that way.
In Queens Branch of the Bhuvaneshwar Mandir, Inc. v Jagraine Sherman, 2017 NY Slip Op 08546 (NY App Div 2nd 2017) the opinion does not indicate which group was the old guard and which was the challenger. However, the battle for control of the church was settled by an election and the court was asked to confirm the outcome of the election. The disgruntled party alleged a substantial number of the ballots were cast by persons not qualified to vote or not qualified to be members. Without discussing specifics, the court concluded there was inadequate proof to support the claim.
Non-existent or poorly documented membership rolls may make a church election impossible to challenge. The church organizational documents should specify membership eligibility requirements. The church organizational documents should specify the electoral process. There should be church organizational documents in the first place, e.g., bylaws. When a dispute arises it is not uncommon to ask a church to provide the organizational documents only to be told the church cannot determine which version is the latest or whether it is complete, if it can be located at all.
In a single church building, two factions formed and irrevocably divided the congregation. One faction was led by a presiding vicar appointed by a metropolitan and the other faction was led by another presiding vicar appointed by a different metropolitan. The metropolitans were from two different nations. The two factions shared the church building for several years while their litigation for ownership proceeded. But, one faction tired of awaiting the judicial outcome and locked out the other. The locked out faction sought an injunction to resume sharing the building and it was granted. An appeal followed. The faction that sought to lock out the other claimed they were changing the locks because their metropolitan ordered that sacraments be offered in the building only once per Sunday. The faction that changed the locks claimed that their action was ecclesiastical because they were obeying an ecclesiastical order. The appellate court affirmed the injunction because it was a preliminary and temporary order meant only to preserve the status quo. St. Mary’s Knanaya Church, Inc. v Abraham, Slip Op., Commonwealth Court PA, 2017.
The Court certainly did not accuse anyone of trying to game the system with an “ecclesiastical” order. Nevertheless, it is hard not to wonder if that was the strategy. It would have been a clever ruse but like most “trick plays” it had no lasting impact on the score. Regardless, the amount of money the competing factions are expending on legal fees to protect their respective ownership rights in the building would likely have comfortably relocated one of the factions.
The primary legal lesson from this opinion might be that a preliminary injunction designed only to preserve the status quo will receive greater tolerance even if it tends to intrude into ecclesiastical matters. Also, because this is at its core a dispute over real estate, neutral principles would allow disposition without consideration of ecclesiastical orders delivered solely to resolve the land dispute.
While a congregational church that does not have bylaws that can identify members, identify officers, identify employees, especially pastors, and provide for succession will regret it if disputes arise, equally problematic is the church that has overly complex bylaws that require many steps to accomplish such normal operational requirements. Overly complex bylaws contain too many procedural steps or empower multiple boards with conflicting or overlapping spheres of authority. Overly complex bylaws provide for complex verification procedures or worse, subjective verification of office holding credentials. Overly complex bylaws create too many opportunities for the volunteers on the board to miss a step altogether or even if it was fulfilled fail to document it so that after the passage of time it cannot be determined it was fulfilled.
In Oriental Mission Church v Park, 2017 WL 3262257 (Cal. App. 2017), factional disputes led to a decade of litigation including several prior trial court judgments and one prior appeal. The church had a set of bylaws which were translated into English and stipulated into evidence. The bylaws required election to leadership by a 2/3rds congregational vote. The leadership was limited to nine years of service or three successive terms. The leadership had a mandatory retirement age of 65. If someone in leadership resigned voluntarily, the leader could be reinstated in leadership by petitioning for reinstatement, submitting letters of recommendation from 1/3 of the serving members of the board, followed by a vote of the board at which 2/3rds must vote for reinstatement. The board members resigned en masse, with a couple of exceptions, in 2006 and this opinion ruled upon reinstatement. The trial court held that the resignations were valid and reinstatement had not been proven to have occurred.
The trial court also found that one board member did not mean his signed resignation to be an actual resignation. The trial court on that basis held that board member had not resigned. The appellate court affirmed all of the trial court rulings except this one, finding the testimony of the board member about his intent was inexplicable in light of the signed resignation. A written resignation was held to remain enforceable over self-serving contrary testimony.