Monday, April 09, 2012

Court Decides It Can Adjudicate Church's Factional Dispute

In Carter v. Lee (VT Super, April 3, 2012), a Vermont trial court held that it can adjudicate a dispute between factions of the First Congregational Church of Manchester.  Plaintiffs filed a derivative suit challenging a congregational vote to create a Board of Elders as the church's governing body.  Plaintiffs claim that they were denied access to the church membership list and records in violation of the non-profit corporation statute; that actions of the Board of Elders, including hiring of a new clergyman and certain expenditures are unauthorized; and that defendants failed to give proper notice of an amendment to the church bylaws and of a special meeting. The court concluded:
Although plaintiffs identify specific actions taken by the Board of Elders to which they object, there is no suggestion in the record that their objections are religious in nature. Plaintiffs do not argue that the Board of Elders has taken action that runs contrary to the tenets of the church, or that the creation of the board is inconsistent with church doctrine.... [A]ll of plaintiffs' claims involve a straightforward application of Vermont's non-profit corporations' law, and do not require an examination of religious doctrine. Because it appears that the court can adjudicate each count of the plaintiffs' complaint without considering ecclesiastical evidence, or resolving any religious disagreement, the court has jurisdiction to proceed.