A dispute between a Texas church and its umbrella denominational organization underscores the need for alternative dispute processes.
The civil court system lacks jurisdiction to get involved in a dispute between a local Seventh-day Adventist church and its denominational umbrella organization, the Second Appellate District of Texas at Fort Worth, ruled on Thursday.
The Fort Worth Northwest Seventh-day Adventist Church (“Northwest Church”) brought the case against their regional governing organization, the Texas Conference, and the Southwestern Union Conference. The circumstances of the dispute are briefly referenced in the ruling and, as in any case of this nature, undoubtedly run much deeper.
Essentially, the local treasurer under a previous church board (the board had since been replaced) whose name still appeared on the account had written a check to the Conference that exhausted the local funds. To pay expenses, the church board then tried to obtain cash from its savings account at the Union level, which sent them a check but the Conference placed a “stop payment” on it. On February 21, 2019, the Conference changed the locks on the building and, church members allege, took the key to their post office box.
The local church members were upset about this since they had donated to and maintained the building and were offended at the “POSTED – NO TRESPASSING – KEEP OUT” signs. The local church members sued the Conference, their parent organization, for injunctive and declaratory relief and damages for property theft and based their complaint on the Church Manual.
The Conference and Union objected, claiming that the civil courts had no jurisdiction over the religious dispute, but the trial court had allowed the matter to continue. The case went up on appeal, and the Appellate Court reversed, stating that even abstention facts were exactly as the church members had said, the case could not proceed under the “ecclesiastical abstension doctrine.”
The appellate court explained that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which is grounded in the First Amendment, “prohibits civil courts from delving into matters of theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or members’ conformity to the church’s moral standards.”
The First Amendment, the court stated, “protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” Courts should therefore not intrude on the internal affairs of the church. Courts can get involved if the facts of the lawsuit won’t require the court to delve into religious doctrine, interfere with the ability to practice religion or decide issues of church governance.
The court can investigate church property disputes based on neutral principles of law. In this case, however, the court would have to interpret the Church Manual, a daunting task for church leaders. The Church Manual provides a basic appeals process in which disputes between churches and conferences can be appealed to the Union level. If the next higher organization decides not to hear the argument, then the last highest decision stands.
Disputes of this nature can occur in any denomination and are often bitter, with a great deal of pain on the side that feels unheard. There are multiple stakeholders with apparent interests – parishioners who sacrificed personal time and money for their local church, denominational stakeholders intent on securing organizational orthodoxy, and even the interests of the local community that has to watch the fight play out.
Many people mistake the idea of unity for the concept that people within a church won’t fight – but that goes against human nature. In reality, church organizations could benefit from knowing how to fight with clear rules of engagement, focused statements of the issues, negotiating to attempt a compromise, and how to know when the dispute has concluded. This is not something that just happens. It takes deliberate planning and implementation before disputes arise.
The Case for Alternative Dispute Resolution
Court systems exist to resolve disputes and determine winners and losers – not to reach solutions between stakeholders. That this case reached the appellate stage underscores the need for denominations to develop and maintain “fair fight” rules.
Church organizations could benefit from knowing how to fight with clear rules of engagement, focused statements of the issues, negotiating to attempt a compromise, and how to know when the dispute has concluded.
Religious organizations could benefit from formalized alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) systems with clear rules and expectations so that all stakeholders can have their voices heard and have the best opportunity to resolve these disputes. The idea of sending it up the chain makes the lower levels feel like they have not been taken seriously.
Alternative dispute resolution programs acknowledge the interests of all involved and can be time consuming but lead to much better results. They typically begin with a scheduled mediation, in which a neutral mediator hears both sides of the argument and tries to broker a resolution. Before a mediation session, each side has the opportunity to draft a letter to the mediator outlining the scope of the dispute and what they hope to achieve. At the mediation event, the mediator will usually meet separately with each side to understand the goals and try to find out if there are unspoken issues or creative solutions that might be the key to resolving the dispute. They will try to broker a solution between the sides, and will usually serve as the conduit for offers and counteroffers. Depending on the complexity, a mediation can go for several hours.
This is not something that just happens. It takes deliberate planning and implementation before disputes arise.
If the parties cannot resolve a dispute at mediation, an arbitration will be scheduled. Arbitration is like a trial, and both sides will present a brief of their position to the other side. The other side can then write a reply brief and present oral arguments to an arbitrator. The arbitrator, who is neutral, will usually try to take the last opportunity to mediate a resolution, but if that fails, will listen to both sides and, within a few weeks, will issue a written decision based on the governing rules and guidelines.
This may sound like a long process and may not be appropriate for all circumstances, but a well-run ADR program can smooth out the edges of a dispute and lead parties to be satisfied that they were heard and bring healing to the separation endemic to religious disputes.
Michael Peabody, Esq. holds a certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution from the Strauss Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law and serves as the Director of Alternative Dispute Resolution for a California law firm.