Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Court Cannot Decide Church Leadership Dispute

In Eglise Baptiste Bethanie De Ft. Lauderdale, Inc. v. Seminole Tribe of Florida, (SD FL, Jan 3, 2020), a Florida federal district court invoked the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to dismiss a suit filed to settle a dispute over church leadership between the church's board of directors and the widow of its deceased pastor. According to the court:
While ... [weekly church] services were in progress, Defendant Auguste and her supporters, escorted by six armed officers from the Seminole Police Department, and without judicial authorization entered church property, "disabled the Church Property's surveillance cameras," "expelled from the Church Property all the worshipers who opposed Auguste," "changed the locks to the doors of the religious structure located on the Church Property," "seized the business records of Eglise Baptiste," and "locked the gates to the Church Property." ... Defendant Auguste and her supporters continue to occupy the church property and control Eglise Baptiste's personal property, including its bank accounts....Further, Defendant Auguste and her supporters have continued to exclude Plaintiffs from the church property.
However, the court concluded:
[A]ny adjudication of the claims asserted in Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint would violate the First Amendment because it "would require judicial intrusion into, rules, policies, and decisions which are unmistakably of ecclesiastical cognizance." ... [T]he foundational issue that must be resolved before addressing the merits of the claims is whether Defendant Auguste had the authority to exclude Plaintiffs from church property as Pastor Auguste's rightful successor. Questions of church government are fundamentally ecclesiastical in nature....
Ultimately, Defendant Auguste's decision to exclude Plaintiffs from church property and the ensuing events are so inextricably intertwined with matters of church governance, administration, and membership — regardless of the legal theories presented — that the adjudication of such issues would "excessively entangle[e] the judiciary in [ecclesiastical] questions."...