Court lacks jurisdiction to consider church constitution – N.C. Court of Appeals

Animaw Azige v. Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church.

Holy Trinity amended its constitution and bylaws. Soon after that, several church members sued for a declaratory judgment that several violations of the bylaws had occurred, including improperly conducting an election extending the terms of some council members, the adoption of the amendment, the transfer of some property and the exclusion of the plaintiffs as members.

Defendant’s filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. The interlocutory appeal followed. The sole issue on appeal was whether the suit would impermissibly ask the court to interfere in ecclesiastical matters in contravention of the First Amendment. The opinion quotes from Davis v. Williams, an earlier N.C. Court of Appeals opinion:

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits a civil court from becoming entangled in ecclesiastical matters. However, not every dispute involving church property implicates ecclesiastical matters. Thus, while circumscribing a court’s authority to resolve internal church disputes, the First Amendment does not provide religious organizations absolute immunity from civil liability. As such, our Courts may resolve disputes through neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes. The dispositive question is whether resolution of the legal claim requires the court to interpret or weigh church doctrine.

Davis v. Williams, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___, 774 S.E.2d 889, 892 (2015) (emphasis added by opinion).

Because the plaintiff’s standing to sue and their right to vote on the contested matters depended on their status as members of the church, and because “Membership in a church is a core ecclesiastical matter,” the trial court would necessarily need to consider ecclesiastical matters to decide the case.

Even assuming for purposes of argument that plaintiffs are registered members, Article 5.1 imposes additional requirements even for registered members to have the right to vote “on Church matters requiring a vote” and these requirements raise ecclesiastical questions.