Monday, July 13, 2015

Alabama Supreme Court Upholds Preliminary Injunction In Church Election Case

Ex parte Cornell L. Tatum, Sr.,  (AL Sup. Ct., July 10, 2015), is a mandamus action-- essentially an interlocutory appeal-- in a suit in which members of a Baptist Church sued seeking an order to require deacons of the church to abide by a vote of church members ousting them from their positions. The trial court issued a preliminary injunction barring the deacons from "undertaking any act as a member of [the board] of [the church] including any participation in Deacon
meetings or performing any duties or responsibilities of a deacon while this order is in effect." The deacons petitioned the Alabama Supreme Court for a writ of mandamus ordering the trial court to vacate its order for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Alabama Supreme Court in a summary order denied the petition.

While there was no opinion for the court, Justice Parker wrote an opinion concurring specially, saying in part:
I write specially to emphasize that a circuit court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to apply judicial notions of due process to church proceedings when the highest adjudicatory body of a church decides a purely ecclesiastical matter.  Additionally, I write to note that a circuit court may recognize a decision by the highest adjudicatory body of a church concerning a purely ecclesiastical matter and, based on that decision, enjoin persons from taking unauthorized actions on behalf of the church....
Admittedly, however, it is unclear whether the April 20, 2014, vote constituted a decision by the highest adjudicatory body of the church. In a Baptist church, the majority of the congregation is the highest adjudicatory body, unless the church bylaws provide otherwise.... This lack of clarity, however, does not require that this Court grant the petitioners' petition..... The petitioners have not demonstrated that the April 20, 2014, meeting was not a decision by the highest adjudicatory body of the church. Accordingly, the petitioners have failed to demonstrate a clear legal right to the relief sought.
Chief Justice Moore filed a dissenting opinion, arguing in part that "any decision by the circuit court regarding the ability of the petitioners to serve as deacons in the church necessarily requires the court to resolve a number of antecedent issues that are inextricably intertwined with church governance." He added:
A court's involvement in a religious matter is not sanitized merely because the court purports to ratify, rather than annul, a church's decision. What violates church autonomy is not the substance of the court's ultimate determination, but the judiciary's very participation in the intra-church conflict.
Justice Murdock filed a brief dissent based on failure to join necessary parties.