Tag: ecclesiastical abstention doctrine

HIERARCHIAL CHURCH TITLES AND TRADEMARKS

For some reason, some in the judicial branch have difficulty refraining from interfering in internal denominational matters when the local church or local diocese tries to escape from the parent organization with the local land holdings, too, rather than simply leaving and starting anew.  This seems odd given that these assets are generally amassed by local church members over a period of decades or even centuries that thought they were supporting their denominational church.  The new leadership or congregation in the local church may in recent times decide it can no longer as a matter of conscience support the parent church, but that does not automatically relieve them of the duties they may owe the denomination as to church assets accumulated by prior generations of members.

Episcopal Church litigation has focused the judicial microscope on denominational documents, land titles and ecclesiastical process as well as the hesitancy of some in the judicial branch to abstain as noted above.  In Protestant Episcopal Church, et al, v The Episcopal Church, ___ SE2d ___, 2017 WL 3274123 (SC 2017) it took four justices each writing separately to reverse the trial court (and there was a dissent).  The guiding finding was that the Defendant was the parent church in a hierarchical church and that the Plaintiffs were subordinate church entities.  Once this finding was made, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine required the Court to defer to the ecclesiastical decision-making by the parent church.  The Court concluded (quoting) “what happens to the relationship between a local congregation that is part of a hierarchical religious organization when members of the local congregation vote to disassociate is an ecclesiastical matter over which civil courts generally do not have a jurisdiction.”  Thus, the denominational requirement that the subordinate church entities held title to local church property in trust for the parent church was enforceable as were the federally registered trademarks.  Indeed, one of the concurring opinions suggested the Plaintiffs were “masquerading” as an authorized diocese in an effort to secure their land titles.  The autonomic reflex of the Court to switch to “neutral principles of law” regarding trust issues and property title issues was deemed inapplicable given the applicability of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the resulting deference to ecclesiastical due process imposed by the parent church.

The lesson for local churches is to be prepared to buy the property from the parent church or be prepared to leave it behind when disassociating and before announcing the disassociation.  With most local churches, the denominational parent will be unable or unwilling to keep the local church property and payoff remaining mortgages and maintenance costs and will negotiate a reasonable and affordable sale of the rights.  But, if the parent church decides to play “hardball,” the local church may be forced to relocate.

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.

THE FINGER IN THE DIKE

From the perspective of church defendants, any weakening in the shield wall of the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine creates concern because the future courts that will operate under the doctrine may further weaken it.  At its best, the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine might be viewed as a limitation on the jurisdiction of the third branch of government, the secular courts.  However, if it is not a limitation on jurisdiction, then the secular courts are free to rule to the full extent of their jurisdiction in any subject an argument can be made that secular law does not interfere with doctrinal freedom.  Moreover, the cost of compliance with secular law can reduce the freedom of religion by indirectly making the free exercise cost too much.  This is especially true in the church school.

In Winkler v Marist Fathers of Detroit, Inc., Slip Op. (Mich. 2017), the student applicant to the church high school asserted she was denied admission due to dyslexia.  The defendant church school claimed the admission was denied because the student’s academic record did not meet the admissions requirements.  Michigan held in 1994 that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine deprived the secular court of jurisdiction to hear church school admissions cases.  Thus, the Michigan Supreme Court took up the question of jurisdiction only and none of the other questions raised by the facts or parties.  The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and held that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine does not deprive the court of jurisdiction.  The case was remanded for further proceedings.  Indeed, the case might still be dismissed by the lower courts on other grounds such as whether Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act applies to church schools and on Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine grounds if a religious reason for the denial of admission is revealed in discovery.

However, whereas before in Michigan the case would not have survived long enough to become an independent search for neutral principles under which to decide the case it now could.  Likewise, other cases on other topics could.  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” will be very narrow if it is limited in effect to the ecclesiastical questions and does not limit the larger regulation by government of the day to day affairs of a church, such as operating a church school.  No matter how “good” an idea it may be to force public schools to main stream all disabilities without commensurate adequate additional funding such a financial burden will close most church schools (and does not seem to be doing the public schools much “good”).  As the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine shrinks in scope church schools will find themselves increasingly outside the shield wall.