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How Will a Court Decide My Church Dispute?

While most churches will go to great lengths to avoid the secular court system, sometimes inter or intra-church disputes do end up in court. But does that mean that the judge will make a decision which directs a church to take or refrain from taking a certain action? As two recent cases demonstrate, many courts will make a great effort to avoid making a ruling on church matters.

The first case that this post will explore is Hillenbrand v. Christ Lutheran Church of Birch Run. In this case from the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Plaintiff had served as the pastor of the Church until he was terminated in 2012. The Defendant was a Lutheran church. The case began when Plaintiff filed a complaint against the Church claiming that the Church wrongfully terminated Plaintiff’s employment in violation of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (“LCMS”) constitution. The Church had been a member of the LCMS at the time Plaintiff was terminated.

According to Plaintiff, the LCMS constitution required a LCMS dispute resolution panel to hold a hearing on the matter before the Church could fire him. Before the hearing could take place, the Church withdrew its membership from LCMS. The hearing eventually took place on August 17-18, 2012. The panel ruled that the decision to terminate the Plaintiff should be “reviewed and revised” and that the Plaintiff was entitled to compensation from the Church from the date of his termination until he accepted a call from a new congregation. The Church rejected this decision.

The Church filed a motion for summary disposition claiming that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine prevented the court from determining whether the Church violated its own policies and procedures. The Church also argued that it was not bound by the LCMS panel decision. The trial court agreed with the Church and granted summary disposition in the Church’s favor. The Plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that he was entitled to judgment since the LCMS was a hierarchical organization, and thus the organization’s decision was binding upon the Church under the law. The court disagreed. In determining whether the LCMS was hierarchical or congregational, the court looked to the LCMS constitution. Article VII of the LCMS constitution provided, among other things, that the LCMS was not an ecclesiastical government and its resolutions were not binding upon its member congregations.

Thus, even though the Church was a member of LCMS at the time of Plaintiff’s termination, the LCMS constitution clearly stated that its decisions were not binding upon the Church. In the court’s opinion, this made the LCMS nothing more than an “advisory body.” Since the LCMS was an advisory body and not a governing body, the court found that the LCMS was congregational and not hierarchical.

Since the court found that LCMS was congregational in nature, it was not required to enforce the decision of the LCMS panel regarding the Plaintiff’s termination. And since there was no clear hierarchical church decision to enforce, the court said that making a decision regarding the Plaintiff’s termination would require it to analyze and take a position regarding the Church’s firing of its pastor. The court refused to do this. Since the Court of Appeals refused to rule on the Church’s employment decision, it affirmed the trial court and awarded summary disposition to the Church.

The second case, Alpine Community Church v. New Jersey United Methodist Church, et al. is from New Jersey, and also involved a question of hierarchical vs. congregational. In this case, the plaintiff Church brought suit against its former pastor claiming, among other things, that the pastor had misused church funds. The pastor had been appointed to lead the Church by the Bishop of the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (“Conference”).

Since its founding in the 1800’s, the Church had maintained ties with the Methodist Church. It employed Methodist pastors and regularly participated in Methodist conferences. However, the Church claimed that it was never formally joined to the Methodist denomination, and thus not into the Conference.

When the Church discovered the alleged mismanagement of funds by the pastor, several Church officials requested that the Conference remove the pastor from his duties at the Church. The Conference reviewed the allegations and determined that there was insufficient evidence to support terminating the pastor. The pastor subsequently retired. Soon thereafter, the Church brought suit against the pastor alleging various claims including unjust enrichment and tortious interference with contractual relations. The pastor moved to dismiss the complaint.

In granting the pastor’s motion to dismiss the court made two key determinations. First, the court determined that the Church was bound by the Conference’s determination since it was part of a hierarchical denomination. The Church argued that since it was not technically incorporated into the United Methodist Church, it should not be bound by its decisions. However, the court ruled that the facts established that the Church was indeed bound by the Conference’s decision since the Church had acted for years as if it was part of the United Methodist Church, and only attempted to distance itself when litigation was imminent.

Second, the court determined that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the Church’s claims. Here, the court explained that in order for it to determine whether or not the pastor violated church policy when handling church funds, the court would be required to analyze the policies and customs of the Church. The court determined that it could not rule on the dispute using only “neutral principles of law.” Thus, the court refused to exercise jurisdiction over what it deemed to be an “ecclesiastical matter.”

These cases, while from two different state courts, reinforce the principle that courts will almost always try to avoid ruling on what they feel are “ecclesiastical matters.” These cases also show just how much deference is given to hierarchical denominations. Decisions of these organizations will almost always be binding in most courts. While these principles of law are not new, determining when they apply is another matter. An experienced an attorney can help you decide if taking your church matter to court is likely to result in the relief you are looking for.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC are very experienced in church matters. We represent both hierarchical and congregational churches. If you feel that your church dispute may be moving toward litigation, please do not hesitate to contact us. We can help you evaluate your options and decide upon the best course of action for you or your church.

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