A business court has found that there is little reason for “Neutral” in Church business disputes | Fox Rothschild LLP

Conflict over church control over church bank accounts expelled a pastor who led Wakefield Missionary Baptist Church into a schism, saw church doors locked and worshiped competing factions under the banner of an association that had not been united at one time. In McKnight v. Wakefield Missionary Baptist Church, Inc.2022 NCBC 10, The Court of Business ruled that the dispute between dissenting churches is largely beyond its reach, with the edict of the First Amendment ruling that the judiciary cannot “resolve church questions” or “debates on religious doctrine and practice.”

The court found a way to determine whether the alleged vote of the church congregation to support the dismissal of the pastor by “neutral principles of law” would be valid. During its 150-year existence, Wakefield was a congregation church that governed itself and handed over that authority to its members in a recently adopted constitution and statute. Id. ¶ 3. But when the congregation agreed to move Wakefield’s property to a new embedded form, a dissident group sued and sought to dissolve the division.

The challenge of this North Carolina action posed long-term risks, including “the right of the congregation to control the church,” including the authority to change its customs and regulate the decisions of the previous church. Graham v. Lockhart, 42 NC App. 377, 379 (1979). The business court determined that when the formed entity reopened and the 37 members present unanimously confirmed its change of form, the movement of Wakefield’s assets and the resignation of its pastor, the church governing body “declared the matter closed.” ”. NCBC 10, ¶¶ 7, 18.

But this respect for the limits of North Carolina law allowed the Court to resolve a dispute by using “neutral principles,” which could not fully resolve even the controversy over the appropriateness of the congregation’s action. For example, congregations that did not join the incumbent group still believed that they formed Wakefield, and “those who voted for ratification ceased to be members of the church.” According to Judge Conrad, “[t]The court has no duty to make a decision that would excommunicate church members from being a member of the church in favor of a faction in matters of church governance. Id. ¶ 17.

However, even when the Court ruled that it could not “invalidate the edict of the congregation,” it was considered a “neutral” decision as to who made up the governing body of the church. -an old church banner and he couldn’t. Id. ¶ 20.

Trade name infringement

The decision of the Business Court was also met with responsibility for examining which of Wakefield’s dissident groups could use his name properly. Judge Conrad also found it difficult to address the First Amendment. “[w]what a church or other house of worship chooses to call itself is, after all, an expression of its religious identity. ” Id. ¶ 58. Perhaps because of this, the Court held that the Supreme Court of North Carolina has ruled in its favor to “prohibit the use of a church similar to another church in a church or not”. Id. (referred to Bd. Provincial Elders v. Jones, 273 NC 174, 184 (1968)). The problem was ironically solved by the following principle:

“[t]the right to use the name belongs to the organization, not to the members; and when they cease to be members of the organization, their use of the name is misleading and, if it is detrimental to the organization, should be banned.

Daniel v. Wray, 158 NC App. 161, 173 (2003). Here, therefore, the power of the congregation members pushed for a change in the corporate form, but it was then the newly formed entity that controlled the use of the Wakefield name as its organizing label.

Take it

  • While “ecclesiastical questions” are carefully avoided, North Carolina courts walk the rocky ground to make neutral decisions about who is the governing body of a church that can control their property.
  • A congregation has ample opportunity to mark its career, but here, too, there were limitations to its ability to claim that its contributions to its rival and dissident congregation were its property. The court ruled that there was “no evidence that the donors intended to donate their money” beyond the actual congregation they chose to worship anywhere. NCBC 10, ¶ 55.

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