These two related cases, consolidated on appeal, involve the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
They involve a fight about whether a corporate Board of Directors acted properly in hiring a new president, throwing out the minority director who thought him unqualified, later firing the new president, and allegedly misusing corporate funds. The wrinkle is that the corporation was a church and the president its new priest. People divided into pro- and anti-new-priest camps and then both sides showed their faith in the inscrutable judgments of the Almighty by asking Caesar to render one more to their liking.
Under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine the court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to consider “ecclesiastical matters,” i.e., matters which concern “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them.” (How a court can “abstain” from doing something it doesn’t have the power to do is a problem the opinion appears to recognize; it ends up saying, in essence, that “subject matter jurisdiction” means different things depending on what the court says it means. The real answer would be to admit that “abstention” is a misnomer the court is stuck with because of the precedent.)
The opinion carefully explains the history of the doctrine as if it were a rarity. It isn’t something you run into every day but the same court issued an opinion about it in 2002 (Rashedi). And having consolidated the cases for purposes of appeal, it divides them for purpose of the opinion, almost as if it drafted separate opinions and stuck one onto the end of the other.
The doctrine doesn’t apply when “neutral principles of law” are involved. Do these cases involve ecclesiastical matters or neutral principles of corporate law? Ecclesiastical matters, says the court. Why? That’s not clear. A main issue concerns the new priest’s qualifications but the opinion’s 38 pages never explain why this involves church doctrine rather than simple matters of fact – whether he was ordained before a certain date under a certain rite. The other issue involves misappropriation of funds and property. Some of those allegations were dismissed for unrelated reasons but the opinion dumps the rest into the “ecclesiastical matters” category by inventing a defense to them. Although the pleading in question was not well drafted, it says that the defendant “has emptied all bank and financial accounts of the Church, taking the proceeds thereof . . .” The court decides that the allegations “only prove [sic] that the Board may have changed church bank accounts” and that’s part of the financial affairs of the church that the court can’t look at. But that isn’t even what the language says, much less what it clearly means. And how that can possibly be the right standard of review is another thing that’s not clear.
The court apparently feels that its contribution to the law is to decide that the abstention doctrine applies not only to hierarchical churches (parts of larger denominations) but also to congregational churches (local, independent ones). It analyzes this for several pages (it is one of those that briefs almost every case it cites). While its probably right, those several pages don’t hint at a principal reason for the issue. These people formed a corporation and drafted lengthy articles of incorporation and adopted extensive bylaws. Nothing else governs their church (it is a Catholic church but is not part of the local diocese). Having gone out of their way to do things established and required only by civil law, was it their intention that that law largely not apply? Perhaps so, and perhaps it shouldn’t anyway, but perhaps also the court could find space to address real problems somewhere among its airy recitations of “insightful and well-reasoned” (that particular one is, by the way, tedious and obscure) cases.
One gets the impression that the court didn’t want theses cases to continue and so devised or accepted reasons, however contrived, why they couldn’t. We mention that sort of thing from time to time because the impressions an opinion gives are important. If that’s not what was going on, its not our fault that what the court said could lead people to think so. It would have been better simply to cite Rashedi – a superior opinion anyway – and be done with it.