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.
Most of the preachers, pastors, ministers, and priests I have known cannot carry a tune in bucket. Thus, in modern church services, the rise of professional music worship leaders has been inexorable. Many music worship leaders have educational and performance credentials. However, are they clergy?
In Clover Hill Reformed Church v Township of Hillsborough, Slip Op. (NJ Tax Court 2018), the issue was whether the parsonage in which the congregation’s music worship leader resided was tax exempt. The statute allowed each church to have two exempt parsonages. The Clover Hill church had two and one was the residence of the music minister. But, the tax assessor denied the exemption holding the music minister was not an “officiating clergyman,” a statutory term. The court reversed the tax assessor and held the music minister was “officiating” within the meaning of the statute.
There was an oddity or two in the opinion. The music minister in question was not a member of the congregation or the denomination but was a member of another church group. In the southwest United States, the music minister’s “home” church would likely have been non-instrumental, and might be, too, on the eastern seaboard, but the music minister was serving in a church that allowed instrumental music. Indeed, the music minister was a pianist. As a non-member, however, he could not substitute for the lead pastor, which led the tax assessor to conclude the music minister was not “officiating clergy.”
The other oddity was that the court never actually stated the tax assessor was making an ecclesiastical determination about what constituted “officiating” and “clergy,” and thus probably running afoul of the First Amendment. But, that might have been the case.
The lesson for other churches is to make sure the written job description of ministers seeking residential tax exemption makes their ecclesiastical role clear.