Courts will typically refrain from resolving church leadership succession controversies. A court might make certain the process dictated by the church governing documents is followed such that usurpation is not likely to succeed, especially when in dispute are positions in congregational churches. In hierarchical church organizations, the courts seem less likely to resolve a dispute because church government is presumptively able to manage its own internal process for elections.
In our post on April 4, 2017, we reported the opinion in Puri v Khalsa, 844 F3d 1152 (9th Cir. 2017) in which the Oregon federal court dismissed the case on the pleadings and on appeal the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit reversed an Oregon federal district court decision. On remand, in Puri v Khalsa, Opinion and Order, (D. Or. Portland Div. 2018), discovery proceedings were followed by motions for summary judgment. Also, a state court four-week jury trial had been concluded on state law theories of recovery. In the case on remand, the Oregon federal court had all the evidence the parties could muster in discovery and the prior trial, too. The issue was whether the succession plan of the founding religious leader was enforceable or whether the boards of the denomination could revise or revoke the succession plan. The founding religious leader died and left written instructions with the lawyer of the corporation regarding the identities of the persons the late religious leader was appointing to the controlling boards. The Oregon federal court held that the boards could revise the succession plan. Also, the Oregon federal court concluded the evidence proved that while they may not be conventional churches the defendants were religious organizations. Also, the court held the board members, because of their authority to choose and remove religious leaders in the church, were governed by the Ministerial Exemption Doctrine. Finally, finding the entities to be religious organizations brought their internal decision-making into the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. Thus, the Oregon federal court dismissed the case.
Succession plans that involve binding beyond the grave are likely to fail. A founder that wants to preserve a legacy should do so before retirement or death. Governing documents that invest denominational boards with the authority to select clergy or other church leaders may likewise place the election of board members beyond the reach of a secular court. Internal processes that select these board members should be carefully designed to avoid over reaching and usurpation because secular court rescue may not be available. As the foregoing demonstrates, the founder’s legacy was costly to preserve or inherit, and may not, in fact, belong to the founder or the founder’s heirs.
If the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception mean anything, at the least they preclude judicial inquiry into denominational management or discipline of its own clergy (regardless of by what title they may be known). In Melendez v Evangelos Kourounis, Slip Op. (NJ App. Div. 2017) a trial court’s summary judgment was affirmed per curiam. The clergyman established a mission chapel. He claimed it was with the bishop’s approval. The bishop denied that it was an approved mission. The bishop also issued an encyclical in which the clergyman was barred and local clergy were instructed to advise parishioners not to go to the mission chapel. The clergyman sued for defamation but without doubt that required inquiry into the scope of denominational authority which is typically ecclesiastically defined. On that basis the trial court dismissed the case and on that basis the appellative division affirmed.
The denomination appeared to be hierarchical. However, that might not matter. If the denomination has given itself the authority to manage and discipline its clergy it is not likely that a court will inquire further, even if the denomination is connectional.
After a fire destroyed the church building in 2013 and insurance paid $1 million, the denominational authority had to decide whether to rebuild the building. In order to make the decision, the denomination decided to first test whether the congregation was viable. The congregation had stopped paying dues to the denomination, stopped attending synods, and stopped obtaining approval of elected board members of the local church. When the denomination asked the congregation how many dues paying members it had, the congregation could only identify “twenty seven and one half” dues paying members rather than the number required to prove viability, which was fifty. The Plaintiffs sued to try to stop the denomination from ending the existence of their congregation and seizing the church property and accounts. St. Cyrillus v Polish National Catholic Church, Inc., Slip Op. (Superior Court, NJ, 2017).
The St. Cyrillus opinion was issued by a New Jersey trial court in which the court granted summary judgment to the denomination based on the reversionary clause in the denominational documents. (In many states, trial courts do not have staff attorneys and do not write opinions so this opinion represents a rare opportunity.) It was alleged the denomination in correspondence referred to the St. Cyrillus congregation as that “peruvian congregation.” The argument was that the reference to nationality or ethnicity was pejorative. It was argued it showed a “bad motive” by the denomination to reach the decision to close the congregation and gather the assets. The trial court held the mere mention of the congregation by that label did not in isolation indicate the term was used pejoratively. In any event, the court held the congregation could not prove it was viable.
There are not many reversionary clause cases extant. Those that are almost always find the denomination, if the congregation was a member, has the right to exercise the reversionary clause. The St. Cyrillus congregation was an active member of the denomination from 1937 until 2010 and therefore its membership in the denomination was not effectively contestable. The denomination tracked the participation of the congregation in synods over several decades. Correspondence from pastors of the congregation going back forty years demonstrated acknowledgment of membership. The congregation was incorporated before it joined the denomination but that gap in the documents was insufficient to negate the other abundant evidence. The lesson regarding the need for quality denominational documents and document retrieval was well made.