January 9, 2019 § Leave a comment
The concept of Holy War (bellum sacrum in Latin) came about in the 11th century to justify attacking and attempting to annihilate infidels and those whose religious beliefs were different than those of the attacking sect.
The latest to come wafting down from the appellate stratosphere involved Jacob Chapel MB Church, which found itself divided into two factions after its pastor died in December, 2015. One faction was headed by Richard Eskridge, a deacon of the church. The other was led by Louella Peacock, the church’s secretary/treasurer. The depository bank interpled the church’s accounts in chancery and summoned the church. Peacock’s group answered first, claiming the funds, followed by Eskridge’s faction, and the issue was joined. The funds were deposited into the registry of the court.
Eskridge claimed that Brenda Bowie had been elected and installed as the new pastor. Peacock replied that the election was not done according to church by-laws, and that the membership had voted to remove both Bowie and Eskridge from leadership roles in the church.
The chancellor ordered mediation to be conducted by the SCBA, a local Baptist Association, and that body facilitated a new pastoral and leadership election according to church by-laws. That action resulted in election of Kenneth Wraggs as pastor and Betty Quinn as treasurer. The Association recommended adoption of the action by the chancellor, which she did. Eskridge appealed, claiming that the chancellor erred in ordering mediation, in relying on the Association’s findings and recommendations, and in not making findings of fact and conclusions of law.
The COA affirmed in Eskridge v. Peacock, decided December 4, 2018. Chief Judge Lee wrote for the unanimous court:
¶6. Eskridge first argues that the chancellor’s decision to appoint mediators was premature. Eskridge claims that the church had established by-laws for selecting a new pastor and had the by-laws been followed, the chancellor would not have needed to appoint mediators. Eskridge also alleges that the “mediators had their own agenda and had no direction from the Court.” [Fn 1]
[Fn 1] According to Eskridge, the church was not a member of the SCBA and as a result, the mediators lacked authority over the church. During the hearing, however, two people testified that the church was a member of the [Association].
¶7. As our supreme court has stated, the “court’s jurisdiction is limited to purely secular issues, and the court must not be involved in ecclesiastical issues.” [Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church ex rel Bd. of Deacons v. Wallace, 835 So.2d 67,] at 72 (¶11) [(Miss. 2003)] … . In Pilgrim Rest, the church did not have clear by-laws, so the chancellor established a procedure for the church members to vote on whether to retain the current pastor. Id. The supreme court later stated that “Pilgrim Rest represents a narrow exception to the longstanding practice of this Court to refuse to involve itself in ecclesiastical matters.” Greater Fairview Missionary Baptist Church v. Hollins, 160 So. 3d 223, 231 (¶29) (Miss. 2015). Unlike this case, Hollins involved a pastor who sought a temporary restraining order (TRO) after his congregation voted to terminate his employment. Id. at 233 (¶33). There, the chancellor issued the TRO, vacated the church’s vote of termination, and ordered the church to hold another vote. Id. The supreme court reversed, holding that “a pastor who is unhappy about being terminated by a church simply does not present a secular controversy.” Id.
¶8. This case is similar to Pilgrim Rest, not Hollins. The chancellor did not rule on who was entitled to be the new pastor. Instead, because the two groups were at odds and arguing over the interpled funds, the chancellor appointed mediators to oversee the election of the new pastor. At a hearing on the matter, the chancellor stated that “whatever [your] rules and regulations and by-laws are, they’re going to be followed.” And according to the church’s minutes from the business meeting, the “election was carried out in a fair and proper way and in accordance with the [church’s] by-laws as well as in accordance with the policies and procedures of the [SCBA] as indicated by” the moderators.
¶9. In this instance, we cannot find the “chancellor overstepped her bounds of jurisdiction in ordering an election when doing so was secular in purpose and sanctioned by other jurisdictions.” Pilgrim Rest, 835 So. 2d at 72 (¶11) (citations omitted). This issue is without merit.
As for the mediator’s findings, the court said this:
¶10. Eskridge next argues that the chancellor’s “ruling was based solely on the decision of the court-selected mediators who failed to follow the by-laws of the church.” Eskridge further contends that the mediators failed to determine whether the members who voted during mediation were members of the church at the time of Reverend White’s death.
¶11. Eskridge, however, has failed to show that the by-laws were not followed. In fact, as previously stated, the church minutes indicated that the by-laws were followed during the election process. The supreme court’s conclusion in Pilgrim Rest is applicable here: “There is absolutely no indication of [the chancellor] imposing an ecclesiastical dictate on the congregation of Pilgrim Rest. On the contrary, she merely sought to establish a procedure in which the majority of the Church could be heard thereby preserving the peace.” Id. at 73-74 (¶14). This issue is without merit.
And addressing the argument that the chancellor erred in not making findings:
¶12. Eskridge finally contends that the chancellor failed to make findings of fact and conclusions of law. Here, much of Eskridge’s argument is simply a reiteration of his previous arguments, which we found meritless. Eskridge does argue that the “the court also opines that the election was fair, but there is no indication of the method of the voting or the results.” The chancellor relied upon the findings presented by the SCBA and the minutes of the church’s business meeting—the meeting at which the election occurred.
¶13. Uniform Chancery Court Rule 4.01 states that “[i]n all actions where it is required or requested, pursuant to M.R.C.P. 52, [Fn 2] the Chancellor shall find the facts specially and state separately his conclusions of law thereon.” Eskridge never asked the chancellor to make findings of facts and conclusions of law. And he has not shown that the chancellor was required to do so in this instance. This issue is without merit.
[Fn 2] Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a) states that: “In all actions tried upon the facts without a jury the court may, and shall upon the request of any party to the suit or when required by these rules, find the facts specially and state separately its conclusions of law
thereon and judgment shall be entered accordingly.”
An observation or two or more:
- Where to draw the Pilgrim Rest line can be tricky. Here the chancellor merely employed a procedure to ensure that the church’s own by-laws were followed. The result was an election that did follow the by-laws.
- If you want the judge to make detailed findings you have to ask the judge to do that very thing.
- I don’t get the argument that the SCBA was without authority to act as mediator because the church was not a member of the association. There is usually no relationship between a court-appointed mediator and the parties in mediation. It seems to me that the chancellor could have appointed a neutral party such as an attorney or CPA, or even the local Presbyterian Association to mediate.
May 1, 2018 § 2 Comments
Church bodies wind up in court from time to time. Often the dispute is over which ecclesiastical entity or faction of the congregation will own or control church property or assets. Both sides tend to want to charge the other with heresy, or violation of church polity, or something along those lines, and they try to draw the court into their dispute.
It was a dispute over ownership of church property that brought First Presbyterian Church of Starkville (FPC) and The Presbytery of Saint Andrew into litigation. The Presbytery claimed that FPC, which wanted to withdraw from PCUSA, held the church property in trust for the denomination. FPC argued that it had opted out of any trust arrangement. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. In his ruling in favor of FPC, the chancellor pointed out that the issue to be resolved was ownership of the property, and not doctrinal issues. The Presbytery appealed.
In Presbytery of St. Andrew, PCUSA v. First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville, Mississippi, the MSSC affirmed the chancellor’s ruling that FPC did not hold the church property in trust for the Presbytery. Judge Randolph’s April 12, 2018, opinion for the 7-2 majority explains the standard that the courts must apply in determining ecclesiastical legal disputes:
¶20. Mississippi has adopted the “neutral principles of law” approach for resolving church property disputes. See Schmidt v. Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, 18 So. 3d 814, 824 (Miss. 2009); Church of God Pentecostal, Inc. v. Freewill Pentecostal Church of God, Inc., 716 So. 2d 200, 206 (Miss. 1998).
The neutral-principles approach “relies on objective, traditional concepts of trust and property law. . . .” Id. at 205. “It calls ‘for the completely secular examination of deeds to the church property, state statutes and existing local and general church constitutions, by-laws, canons, Books of Discipline and the like. . . .’ ” Id. (quoting Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of N.J. v. Graves, 83 N.J. 572, 417 A.2d 19, 23 (N.J. 1980), cert. denied sub nom. Moore v. Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of N.J., 449 U.S. 1131, 101 S. Ct. 954, 67 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1981)). Religious documents must be carefully scrutinized in purely secular terms without relying on religious precepts. Church of God Pentecostal, 716 So. 2d at 205-06 (citing [Jones v.] Wolf, 443 U.S. [595,] 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020, [61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979)]). If a deed, corporate charter, or religious document incorporates religious concepts in its provisions concerning ownership of the property, the court must defer to the authority of the ecclesiastical body so as to avoid resolving any religious controversy. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020 (citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese [v. Milivojevich], 426 U.S. [696,] 709, 96 S. Ct. 2372, [49 L. Ed. 2d 151 (19760])[sic]. Schmidt, 18 So. 3d at 824.
¶21. As the chancellor held, the underlying reason for the schism among FPC members and between FPC and the Presbytery is not the issue before this Court. The only issue to be decided is whether PCUSA ever had a trust interest in FPC’s property. We find that the chancellor properly found that it did not.
The opinion goes on to lay out an excellent summary of the law of trusts in Mississippi. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. For now, the main thing is to recognize that it’s not the court’s job to resolve doctrinal disputes or to usurp authority of religious governing bodies.
If you have a small-town, people practice, it’s practically inevitable that you will be asked to represent one side or another in a similar fracas. Feelings are hurt, emotions are raw, and things are said in anger that probably would be better left unsaid. The lawyers have their hands full trying to maintain control. My law partner decades ago handled some of these kinds of cases, and came to be known in the community as the “go-to” lawyer when schisms arose. He sued Ministers, Elders, Presbyteries, Bishops, Dioceses, and even Synods. In one of the last cases he handled before we went our separate ways, however, I told him that he had gone too far. He was suing an Apostle. To me, that just crossed a line.