SARAH B. DAVIS, ET AL., Plaintiffs,
NEW ZION BAPTIST CHURCH, Defendant.
in the Court of Appeals 10 January 2018.
by defendant and plaintiffs from judgment entered 23 November
2016 by Judge Carla N. Archie in Mecklenburg County Superior
Court No. 13-CVS-21948.
McElroy & Diehl, P.A., by J. Alexander Heroy, Edward T.
Hinson, Jr., and Preston O. Odom, III, for
McIntosh Law Firm, P.C., by Jesse C. Jones, for
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.
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.
and Procedural History
2013, Plaintiffs, all of whom were active, voting members of
New Zion Baptist Church, sued the Church and its pastor,
Henry Williams, Jr.
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.
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.
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.