Tag: church splits

CHURCH BOARD USURPATION PENALITIES

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 (Unpublished) (CA App. 5th, 2018), the church split, which involved a violent altercation at one point, resulted in competing church boards between which the trial court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.

100th Post: ELECTION OF OFFICERS – A NEUTRAL PRINCIPLES ISSUE

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.

BOARD MEMBERSHIP WARS

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.

A TALE OF TWO VICARS

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.

COMPLEX BYLAWS

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.

HYBRID CHURCH ADMINISTRATIONS

Whether a church is governed by a hierarchy or governed by the congregation determines who has the right to control church property.  Typically, hierarchical churches are denominational.  Independent churches are typically congregational.  In the hierarchical church, the hierarchy controls the property.  In a congregational church, the congregation controls the property.  Some churches may have aspects of both categories.

In Tom Slagle v Church of the First Born, Slip Op. (Tenn. App., August 2017) (Slagle II), the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court for a trial on the issue of whether the church was hierarchical or congregational respecting its property and regardless of how it might be classified on any other issue.  Based on the record, the appellate court could not determine as to property ownership and control whether the Deacons controlled the property or whether congregational voting governed the property.  In our post of June 20, 2017, we analyzed Slagle I, a prior decision in the case which is the subject of this post.

In Slagle II, the Court listed “a six factor test” for determining whether a church is hierarchical.  The factors listed were:  (1) the affiliation of the local church with a parent church, (2) an ascending order of ecclesiastical judicatories in which the government of the local church is subject to review and control by higher authorities, (3) subjugation of the local church to the jurisdiction of a parent church or to a constitution and canons promulgated by the parent church, (4) a charter from the parent church governing the affairs of the local church and specifying ownership of local church property, (5) the repository of legal title, and (6) the licensing or ordination of local ministers by the parent church.

After the church split occurred (or while it was developing), there was a vote to adopt bylaws.  Had this been done earlier in the history of the church, the question of control of property might not have required litigation, and if it did, shorter and cheaper litigation.  Slagle I and Slagle II, did not finally resolve the case because it was remanded for trial, as noted above.  The litigation nightmare of this church, and its cost in money, time and distraction from mission, was made inevitable by the failure of a founder to have a succession plan and the failure of the church to incorporate or adopt bylaws during a time of peace.

CHURCH SPLIT PURGATORY

Church splits that spill out into the street and the Courts often lead people that have never been through one to react with judgmental disdain.  The lesson of these conflicts, however, should not be missed.  First, very often, “but for the grace of God go I,” is usually true of those who react with judgmental disdain whether they admit it or know it.  Second, a church split often resembles, at least to this observer, a divorce with some of the same or very similar emotional drives and fallout.  Third, the causes of a church split are from the outside often incomprehensible; they seem irrational.  Fourth, on the inside, the irrationality of the church split is not apparent because convoluted emotional reasoning has often replaced reason and unthinkable motives like greed, lust for power, or primal fear threat reactions run rampant.

While the summer production of court opinions is often slower, this summer the Supreme Court of Alabama has issued, subject to revision, an opinion over 11,000 words long about church splits.  Taylor v Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, Slip. Op. (Ala. 2017). The opinion is notable because Alabama has declared that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine deprived the Alabama courts of jurisdiction to resolve a church split by declaring who was the elected pastor of the congregation.  The congregation was left to resolve the church split without resolution of the dispute by a Court.  Legal fees and five years of litigation ended with a dismissal of the case and no verdict.

The stupendous effort of the Alabama Supreme Court to “get it right” in this lengthy opinion was necessitated because a church with sixteen (16) members fractured into two (2) groups.  One group favored terminating and replacing the pastor.  The pastor led the resistance group.  Although the church was congregational, it belonged to an association and engaged a mediator from the association.  But, the failure to settle led to litigation in 2012 that resulted in five years of employment for lawyers and the Supreme Court opinion summarized herein.

Structurally, while the church had bylaws, it had not adjusted the bylaws to its diminutive size and did not elect the boards called for in their own bylaws.  Thus, the church learned the cost of operating like a rabble.  There appears to be a lack of convention speakers on the dangers of mob rule and no course in bible colleges in church administration.

No doubt, normal economic forces will resolve a church split, e.g., foreclosure, inability to pay the pastor, that cannot be resolved in Court.  If normal economic forces do not resolve it, other events in the lives of the disputants inevitably will resolve the church split, e.g., death, divorce, retirement, illness, loss of interest.  Rarely, a mediator will be engaged to resolve it.  Nevertheless, most church splits end by one of these means rather than by Court judgment.  In most states, a Court will finally resolve it by employing neutral principles of law.  But, not in Alabama if the result is the appointment of the pastor.  If the result is control of property, the result might be different, because the Court stated:  “As discussed above, the removal of Taylor as the pastor of PMBC was purely an ecclesiastical matter not involving a property right and the trial court lacked the jurisdiction to consider it.”

The Alabama Supreme Court opinion is also notable, and long, because of its recital of the century long history of church split litigation in Alabama.  This by itself made the opinion interesting.