Friday, February 17, 2012

Court Can Apply "Neutral Principles" To Dispute Over Removal Of Church Board Members

In Bendross v. Readon, (FL Aoo., Feb. 15, 2012), a Florida appeals court held that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply to prevent a civil court from adjudicating a dispute over the make up of the a church's board.  Bible Missionary Baptist Church was incorporated as a non-profit corporation under Florida law. Eugene Rice, a member of the church's board,, filed the corporation's 2010 annual report with the state without notice to the remaining directors. The report removed four members of the board and added three new directors. Other board members objected, and eventually filed suit. The court held that since the church by-laws were silent on procedures for removing board members, default provisions in the non-profit corporation law should apply. The court explained:
Because the statute unambiguously establishes procedures of uniform law, the instant dispute "can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving a religious controversy." ...  The court is not asked to interpret religious doctrine or to evaluate church policies. The allegations at the heart of the complaint — that Appellees improperly attempted to remove members of the Board of Trustees — are entirely controlled by neutral application of section 617.0808.