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Davis v. New Zion Baptist Church

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

March 6, 2018

SARAH B. DAVIS, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
v.
NEW ZION BAPTIST CHURCH, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 10 January 2018.

         Appeals by defendant and plaintiffs from judgment entered 23 November 2016 by Judge Carla N. Archie in Mecklenburg County Superior Court No. 13-CVS-21948.

          James, McElroy & Diehl, P.A., by J. Alexander Heroy, Edward T. Hinson, Jr., and Preston O. Odom, III, for plaintiffs-appellees.

          The McIntosh Law Firm, P.C., by Jesse C. Jones, for defendant-appellant.

          DIETZ, JUDGE

         This dispute between a church and some of its former members returns to us for a second time. Our review is constrained by the mandate in the previous decision of this Court, and the limits on judicial intervention in the governance of religious bodies established in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

         As explained below, we affirm the trial court's judgment that, applying neutral principles of law, the church did not follow the procedure established in its bylaws when it attempted to amend them. Because the bylaws govern some non-ecclesiastical issues involving church property and contract rights, courts have the power to adjudicate this issue. With respect to the remaining issues on appeal, concerning removal and election of church deacons and trustees, the bylaws are silent. The courts can play no role in the resolution of those issues. We therefore affirm the trial court's order in part and vacate the order in part.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In 2013, Plaintiffs, all of whom were active, voting members of New Zion Baptist Church, sued the Church and its pastor, Henry Williams, Jr.

         All of Plaintiffs' claims stemmed from the Pastor's management of Church finances and a decision by the Church in 2013 to amend the Church bylaws, changing various tenets of Church doctrine as well as other aspects of the Church's day-to-day operations. The trial court denied the Church's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, rejecting the argument that the First Amendment barred the courts from adjudicating these claims.

         This Court affirmed the trial court in part. Davis v. Williams, 242 N.C.App. 262, 774 S.E.2d 889 (2015). We held that courts had the power to adjudicate Plaintiffs' claim with respect to the Church's breach of its own bylaws, but only to the extent that this claim involved application of neutral principles of law to Church rules that did not involve doctrine or religious practice. Id.

         On remand, the trial court entered summary judgment holding that the Church "violated its Bylaws in its 2013 attempts to vote on proposed amendments" and therefore those amendments were void. The trial court also found that, because the existing bylaws were "silent as to the process for removing deacons and trustees, " the trial court could not play any role in reviewing the removal of those officers from their posts. But the trial court nevertheless ordered the Church to hold an election "to fill vacancies in the office of deacon and trustee . . . at the next regular business meeting of the church, but in any event, no later than ninety (90) days from the filing of this Order." Both parties timely appealed portions of the trial court's ruling.

         Analysis

         I. ...


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