Dec. 13, 2019
Reversed in part; vacated in part; and remanded.
- Whether the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction to rule on a motion for contempt and other matters related to the internal disputes of a religious organization.
In earlier litigation, the defendants challenged certain actions that plaintiff Fuller took as the interim pastor of the plaintiff Church. The Church’s corporate charter contains its covenant and articles of faith and governance, and the defendants argued that Fuller’s actions violated the charter. After finding Fuller was duly elected pastor and that disputed members of the Church were properly admitted, the trial court ruled that certain actions of both Fuller and the defendants had not been properly ratified according to the charter and must be properly noticed to the Church membership and voted on.
The defendants then took a number of actions that the plaintiffs alleged violated the trial court’s order, including disrupting the Church vote, claiming ownership of the parsonage, and asserting that they were acting on behalf of the Church despite no longer holding a leadership position. As a result, the Church filed a request for declaratory and injunctive relief and a motion for contempt against the defendants. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the motion for contempt and held an evidentiary hearing. The court found that Fuller’s actions were valid and that the defendants’ actions were contrary to the charter. The court also found the defendants in contempt of its prior order, and it imposed several sanctions. It also found it it was unnecessary to rule on the request for declaratory judgment.
The Supreme Court reversed the denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss because the motion for contempt asked the trial court to rule on ecclesiastical matters, which is prohibited by the First Amendment. Courts can only intervene in religious disputes that fall outside of the doctrinal realm, such as issues of property and contractual rights. In order for a court to accept subject matter jurisdiction, it must be able to resolve the dispute “without entangling itself in matters of doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization.” Thus, the motion for contempt sought to hold the defendants in contempt for violating religious doctrine rather than secular law, which the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over. The Court also vacated the award of attorneys’ fees and costs.
The Court also ruled that when the trial court addressed the plaintiffs’ requests for injunctive and declaratory relief, it did not narrowly resolve the property disputes in a way to avoid addressing doctrinal disputes. The trial court should have only consulted secular documents like trusts, deeds, and statutes to resolve the dispute unless it was then unclear which party should prevail. If secular law did not resolve the dispute, then the trial court should only have considered Church documents through an application of neutral principles of law. If neutral principals of law still did not resolve the dispute, the religious organization is itself tasked with resolving the dispute. Therefore, to the extent the trial court had addressed issues other than the motion for contempt, the Court vacated the orders and remanded the case for consideration in light of the constitutional principles outlined in its order.
Susan Aileen Lowry, Upton & Hatfield, LLP, Concord, for the plaintiffs. Eric M. Sommers, Sommers Law, PLLC, Bedford, for the defendants.