The North Carolina Court of Appeals has declined to intervene in a row between a Charlotte church and some of its former members, saying that it would be unable to resolve the dispute without entangling itself in the ecclesiastical doctrines of the church. The court reversed a ruling by the trial court and distinguished the suit from other cases in which it had found jurisdiction to hear intra-church squabbles.
The plaintiffs claim that the parish council of the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church improperly extended the length of their terms in response to turmoil over the sacking of one of the church’s priests. They were seeking a declaratory judgment that the council had violated several of the church’s bylaws. The church and its council members meanwhile contended that they had excluded the plaintiffs as registered members of the church.
The First Amendment prohibits civil courts from becoming entangled in ecclesiastical matters, but they may resolve disputes involving churches through neutral principles of law. The key question, then, is whether resolving the legal claim would require the court to interpret or weigh church doctrine. The judges found that, unlike in some previous cases cited by the plaintiffs, the court wouldn’t be able to resolve Holy Trinity’s dispute without wading into church doctrine.
Judge Donna Stroud noted that the plaintiffs in their original complaint requested a declaratory judgment that they were all registered members of the church and could participate in worship there. Although that language was removed in the amended complaint, which takes precedence, even there the plaintiffs’ status as church members remained crucial to their case.
But Holy Trinity’s bylaws imposed some theological requirements for members seeking to vote on church matters, such as diligent work to promote the church’s mission. The court said these stepped outside neutral principles of law and that it was thus barred from deciding whether the plaintiffs should be considered members of the church.
“This case does not appear to be primarily a property dispute or a dispute regarding misappropriation of funds, as many of the cases arising out of church disputes are, but instead plaintiffs’ allegations are focused upon the actual governance of the church and their right as members to participate fully in the church,” Stroud wrote for the court. “Plaintiffs’ status as registered members and right as members in good standing to vote are thus central to this action.”
Julian Wright and Matthew Tilley of Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte represented one of the defendants, Tassew Kassahun. Wright said that in disputes between religious organizations and their flocks, it was vital that attorneys and judges “take a good hard look at what’s really driving the underlying dispute.”
“We’re extremely pleased that the court recognized that this was an internal church dispute over which the court should have no jurisdiction,” Wright said. “I think the lesson here would be that if you just looked at it very superficially, you could have reached a different result, but if you really dig into the issues here, it became really clear that this was an internal church dispute.”
Renee Hughes of Essex Richards in Charlotte and Trey Mayfield of the Lewis Firm in Washington, D.C. represented the other defendants. Hughes did not return a phone call seeking comment on the decision.
Joseph Nelson and John Holden of Dickie, McCamey & Chilcote in Charlotte represented the plaintiffs. Nelson declined to comment on the court’s decision, saying that his clients were still considering whether to petition for discretionary review of the case by the state’s Supreme Court.
The 13-page decision is Azige v. Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-299-16). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
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