Friday, July 30, 2021

Dispute Over Church Vote On Hiring Pastor May Move Ahead

In Howard v. Heritage Fellowship, (VA Cir. Ct., June 30, 2021), a Virginia state trial court refused to dismiss a suit by five church members challenging the membership vote on employment of a senior pastor.  The court said in part:

... Plaintiffs bring suit in concern of whether "the Deacons Board's decision to finalize the membership roll after the results of the 2018 election was in compliance with Bylaws, Constitution and other applicable policies."... [N]one of this request requires the Court to delve into a religious thicket by reviewing religious principles of membership.... [T]here is no allegation ... of a doctrinal dispute between two factions, HFC also lacks an internal tribunal to decide conflicts.... Since HFC lacks internal tribunals to rule on such matters, civil court action is necessary to resolve this dispute.

The court also concluded that the ministerial exception doctrine does not apply, despite the fact that the dispute revolves around selection of the church's minister, saying in part:

Although the language of the ministerial exception does not explicitly state it cannot be applied to other scenarios, that silence does not mean it may extend to election issues. Here, Plaintiffs only ask for democratic, neutral principles of law to be enforced. The Court is not asked to determine whether Reverend Sullivan would make a good Pastor, or if he may stay within said position.