Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Court Invokes Ecclesiastical Abstention To Dismiss Church Members' Claims of Financial Mismanagement

In Harrison v. Bishop, (OH App., Dec. 18, 2015), an Ohio appellate court applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to dismiss a suit brought by three members of the Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church against directors and the senior pastor of the church.  The plaintiffs claimed that defendants breached their duties under the church's constitution by mismanaging the church's finances, wrongfully withholding financial statements and refusing to permit members to examine the church's books and records. The court said in part:
Appellants cite select provisions in the Constitution that they allege give rise to appellees’ duties....  While it is true that the Constitution contains apparently secular provisions, we cannot view those provisions in isolation, thereby ignoring the ecclesiastical content that is found throughout the document. In view of the patently religious nature of the church’s Constitution, we find that reliance upon provisions within the Constitution for determination of the rights and responsibilities of the parties in this case, under auspices of “neutral principles of law,” would necessarily entangle the trial court in ecclesiastical issues over which the court has no subject matter jurisdiction under the First and Fourteenth Amendments....
Further, we find that appellants, in filing this action, are essentially seeking to utilize the power of the civil courts to institute the termination and replacement of the church’s leadership.