Sunday, January 29, 2012

South Dakota Supreme Court Refuses To Order Church Dissolution Because of Religious Issues Involved

Wipf v. Hutterville Hutterian Bretheren, Inc., (SD Sup. Ct., Jan. 25, 2012) is the South Dakota Supreme Court's second installment in a factional dispute in a South Dakota Hutterite colony, and one of the first cases to cite the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Hosanna-Tabor decision.  After a 1992 schism in the North American Schmiedeleut Hutterian Church, two competing factions vied for governing control of the local colony which was organized as a non-profit corporation under South Dakota law.  In its first decision (see prior posting), the state supreme court, affirming the trial court, held that the governance question depends on resolving a dispute over membership in and expulsion from the "true" Hutterite church by the "true" church elders, and the First Amendment shields such issues from scrutiny by civil courts. Just before that supreme court decision was handed down, the state circuit court judge in the case held that the Hutterville colony dispute should be dealt with by dissolving the colony, selling off its assets and distributing the proceeds to its members.

Now the South Dakota Supreme Court has held that state courts also lack jurisdiction to order dissolution in this case:
When Hutterville made following the Hutterian religion a condition of corporate membership and weaved religious doctrine throughout its corporate documents, it limited a secular court’s ability to adjudicate any corporate disputes. We cannot uphold the circuit court’s order, findings, and conclusions without also endorsing its decision on the identity of corporate leaders and members. “Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC et al., ___ U.S. ___, ___, ___ S. Ct. ___, ___, ___ L. Ed. 2d ___ (2012). We conclude that the underlying religious controversies over church leadership so pervade the dissolution of the religious corporation that the dissolution is beyond a secular court’s jurisdiction.