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Home / Opinion Digests / Constitutional / Constitutional – Freedom of Religion – Civil Practice – Subject Matter Jurisdiction – Church Membership – Ecclesiastical Matter

Constitutional – Freedom of Religion – Civil Practice – Subject Matter Jurisdiction – Church Membership – Ecclesiastical Matter

Vuncannon v. North Carolina Institute of Christian Development, Inc. (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-16-0445, 10 pp.) (Ann Marie Calabria, J.) Appealed from Randolph County Superior Court. (V. Bradford Long, J.) N.C. App. Unpub. Full-text opinion.

Holding: Plaintiffs’ standing to bring this action (relating to the defendant-church’s sale of real property) depends on plaintiffs’ membership in the church. Defendants deny that plaintiffs are members of the church and provided the trial court with a document showing that plaintiffs had terminated their membership prior to the filing of this lawsuit by violating membership requirements established in the church’s bylaws. The trial court correctly held that it lacked jurisdiction to determine whether plaintiffs are members of the church.

We affirm the trial court’s grant of defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

Membership in a church is a core ecclesiastical matter. The courts of this state should not become involved in such matters regardless of how the church is organized. However, membership in a nonprofit corporation operating as a church is in the nature of a property interest, and courts do have jurisdiction over the very narrow issue of whether the church’s bylaws were properly adopted. Tubiolo v. Abundant Life Church, Inc., 167 N.C. App. 324, 605 S.E.2d 161 (2004).

Plaintiffs concede the existence of the church’s bylaws, but plaintiffs argue that, while the church (now known as Chimney Lane Ministries) adopted governing documents, these governing documents did not apply to Chimney Lane, the nonprofit corporation. Thus, plaintiffs contend, Chimney Lane lacked corporate bylaws, and their membership in Chimney Lane, the nonprofit corporation, could not have been validly terminated.

However, plaintiffs fail to cite any law to support their argument that a church and its incorporated form comprise two separate entities, requiring two separate sets of governing documents. In addition, plaintiffs fail to explain why Chimney Lane’s existing bylaws do not comply with the requirements of the N.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act.

Moreover, our courts have made clear that a church does not subject itself to additional interference from our courts by choosing to incorporate as a nonprofit. Regardless of a church’s corporate structure, the Constitution requires courts to defer to the church’s internal governing body with regard to ecclesiastical decisions concerning church management and use of funds.

Plaintiffs ultimately challenge only whether their memberships in Chimney Lane were validly terminated under the bylaws, and our courts have no jurisdiction to resolve that dispute.


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