Appeal by defendants from Walker, (Ralph A.), Judge. Judgment entered 8 February 1980 in Superior Court, Union County. Heard in the Court of Appeals 5 November 1980.
Wells, Judge. Judges Vaughn and Martin (Robert) concur.
In one of their assignments of error, defendants have excepted to the trial court's denial of their motion for a directed verdict. The exception is well taken, and we hold that defendants' motion should have been granted.
Although the allegations in the complaint do not suggest it,
plaintiff's evidence makes it clear that the precipitating cause of this lawsuit was a doctrinal dispute between plaintiff Harvey Walters and defendant Flake Braswell. In Atkins v. Walker, 284 N.C. 306, 200 S.E.2d 641 (1973), our Supreme Court, quoting with approval from Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, et al., 393 U.S. 440, 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658 (1969), held that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution "commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine", Atkins v. Walker, supra, at 317, 200 S.E.2d at 648, and that the function of the courts in litigation of disputes such as the one in the case sub judice is to determine (1) who constitutes the governing body of the church and (2) who has that governing body determined to be entitled to use the properties. Id. at 319, 200 S.E.2d at 650. As was stated by the court in Atkins, these determinations must be made pursuant to neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes. Id. at 316, 200 S.E.2d at 648. See Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979); see also Church v. Church, 27 N.C. App. 127, 218 S.E.2d 223, disc. rev. denied, 288 N.C. 730, 220 S.E.2d 350 (1975).
The plaintiffs' complaint contains two paragraphs which set forth the essentials of plaintiffs' claim. They are as follows:
4. That no services were held at the Ebeneezer Truelight Church of Christ from February to May of 1977. That on or about May 22nd, 1977, Harvey H. Walters, the remaining plaintiffs and other persons met at the Ebeneezer Truelight Church of Christ in Union County, North Carolina, formed a new church body and/or society and by assent thereto elected Harvey H. Walters as ruling Elder of said church with the expressed purpose of forming an autonomous self-governing church body and/or society and did form an automonous church.
7. That Harvey H. Walters is the ruling Elder of said church and he and his followers have the right to use said church without the interferences of the plaintiffs [ sic ] and those acting in active concert with him.
In support of their claims that they organized a new, autonomous
self-governing church body or society and formed an autonomous church, that plaintiff Walters is the ruling Elder of the said church, and that he and his followers have the right to use the church without the interference of the defendants and those acting in concert with them, plaintiffs offered the testimony of plaintiff Harvey Walters and Herman Walters.
Harvey Walters, recounting a disagreement between himself and defendant Braswell over church doctrine, and certain events and circumstances pertaining to that disagreement, testified that he is an Elder in the Ebeneezer Truelight Church of Christ and is the treasurer of the church. He keeps the records for the Ebeneezer Church. Before 27 February 1977, services were held at the Ebeneezer Society Church practically every Sunday, but from time to time services were held with other societies of the church. On 27 February 1977 there were thirty-five or forty members of the Ebenezzer Church. From 27 February 1977 to 22 May 1977 there were no services at Ebeneezer because Braswell called the meetings of the society at Rocky River and High Hill rather than at Ebeneezer. Harvey Walters made a decision on 21 May 1977 to return to Ebeneezer to hold services. He made this decision as a result of a disagreement with Braswell concerning doctrine at a meeting of the preachers and elders of the other societies of the church on that date at the Rocky River Church. He informed the meeting at Rocky River that he was going to return to Ebeneezer.
Harvey Walters held a meeting at the Ebeneezer Church on 22 May 1977. There were around twenty to twenty-three people present at the meeting. Since 22 May 1977, except for one or two Sundays, Harvey Walters has continued to hold services at Ebeneezer. The congregation governs or controls the Ebeneezer Truelight Church of Christ and does so by vote. Prior to May 1977, no minutes were kept of the Ebeneezer Truelight Church meetings. The record shows that Harvey Walters' direct examination concluded with the following questions and answers:
Q. I say by what authority do you hold the position of elder there at the church?
Q. Yes. How were you elected, or how did you ...