Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tennessee Appeals Court Invokes Ecclesiastical Abstention In Church Property Dispute

In Church of God In Christ, Inc. v. L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., (TN App, Jan. 27, 2016), a Tennessee state appeals court in a 2-1 decision held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevents civil courts from adjudicating a dispute between a local congregation and its parent body over ownership of assets-- including real property and a bank account with a balance of over $150,000.  Sometime after Gospel Center Temple's founding pastor died, the Jurisdictional Bishop for the Tennessee area of the Church of God In Christ ("COGIC"), David Hall, invoked a provision in COGIC's Official Manual that vacancies in the pastorate of local churches would be filled by the Jurisdictional Bishop until a new pastor was appointed. When Hall attempted to actively manage the local church and transfer its bank account into his name, some members of the local church threatened him and prevented him from getting access to the church's liquid assets. The local members also formed a new corporation to take title to the church's real estate, and voted to remove themselves from Bishop Hall's jurisdiction. However they remained member of COGIC. This led to a suit by COGIC. The majority rejected jurisdiction, saying that it could not adjudicate the real property dispute as long as the congregation had not withdrawn from the parent body.  And as to the dispute over the church's bank account, the majority said in part:
Bishop Hall's alleged authority regarding Gospel Center Church's personal property, including its bank accounts, derives from Bishop Hall's alleged place as the lawful leader of the church. This Court, however, has no subject matter jurisdiction to declare that Bishop Hall is the lawful leader of Gospel Center Church....
Judge Goldin filed a dissenting opinion.