A dispute between a Texas church and its faith-based umbrella organization underscores the need for other dispute resolution processes.
The civil court system has no jurisdiction to get involved in a dispute between a local Adventist church and its faith-based umbrella organization, the Second Texas Appellate District in Fort Worth, ruled Thursday.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church of Northwest Fort Worth (“Northwest Church”) filed suit against its regional governing body, the Texas Conference, and the Southwest Union Conference. The circumstances of the dispute are briefly touched upon in the decision and, as in any case of this nature, are undoubtedly 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 which had depleted local funds. To pay the expenses, the church board then tried to get money from its Union-level savings account, which sent them a check but the Conference put a “stop payment.” ” above. On February 21, 2019, the Conference changed the locks on the building and, according to church members, took the key to their post office box.
Local church members were upset about this as they had donated and maintained the building and were offended by the “POSTED – NO TRESPASSING – KEEP OUT” signs. Members of the local church sued the Conference, their parent organization, for an injunction and declaratory judgment and damages for theft of property and based their claim on the church manual.
The Conference and Union opposed it, saying the civil courts had no jurisdiction over the religious dispute, but the trial court had allowed the case to proceed. The case was appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed, stating that even the facts of forbearance were exactly as church members said, the case could not proceed under of the “doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention”.
The appeals court explained that the doctrine of ecclesiastical forbearance, which is based on the First Amendment, “prohibits the civil courts from considering questions of theological controversy, ecclesiastical discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of members to the moral standards of the church”.
The First Amendment, the court said, “protects the right of religious institutions to decide for themselves, without interference from the state, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” . The courts should therefore not interfere in the internal affairs of the Church. Courts can intervene if the facts of the case do not require the court to delve into religious doctrine, interfere with the ability to practice religion, or decide issues of church governance.
The court may investigate disputes over church property 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 arise in any denomination and are often bitter, with much pain on the side that does not feel heard. There are multiple stakeholders with apparent interests – parishioners who have sacrificed personal time and money for their local church, denominational stakeholders concerned with ensuring organizational orthodoxy, and even the interests of the local community. who has to watch the fight unfold.
Many people confuse the idea of unity with the concept that people within a church will not fight – but that goes against human nature. In fact, church organizations could benefit from knowing how to fight with clear rules of engagement, focused statements of issues, negotiating to attempt compromise, and knowing when the dispute is over. It’s not something that happens. It takes deliberate planning and implementation before disputes arise.
The case of alternative dispute resolution
Judicial systems exist to resolve disputes and determine winners and losers, not to find solutions between stakeholders. The fact that this case has reached the appeal 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 on issues, negotiating to attempt compromise, and knowing when the dispute is over.
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 him down the chain makes the lower levels feel like they haven’t been taken seriously.
Alternative dispute resolution programs recognize the interests of all parties involved and can be time consuming, but lead to much better results. They typically begin with scheduled mediation, in which a neutral mediator hears both sides of the argument and attempts to negotiate a resolution. Before a mediation session, each party has the opportunity to write a letter to the mediator outlining the scope of the dispute and what they hope to accomplish. During the mediation event, the mediator will typically meet with each party separately to understand the goals and try to discover if there are any unspoken issues or creative solutions that might be key to resolving the dispute. They will try to broker a solution between the parties and will usually act as a conduit for offers and counter-offers. Depending on the complexity, a mediation can last several hours.
It’s not something that happens. It takes deliberate planning and implementation before disputes arise.
If the parties fail to resolve a dispute during mediation, arbitration will be scheduled. Arbitration is like a trial, and both parties will present a brief of their position to the other party. The other party can then draft a response brief and present oral arguments to an arbitrator. The arbitrator, who is neutral, will usually try to take the last opportunity to negotiate a resolution, but if that fails, they will listen to both sides and, within a few weeks, issue a written decision based on current rules and guidelines.
It may seem like a long process and may not be suitable for all circumstances, but a well-managed ADR program can iron out the contours of a dispute and lead the parties to be satisfied that they have been heard and bring healing to the separation. endemic to religions. 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 Director of Alternative Dispute Resolution for a California law firm.