Church of God in Christ, Inc. v. L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc.

Decision Date21 September 2017
Docket NumberNo. W2015-00509-SC-R11-CV,W2015-00509-SC-R11-CV
Citation531 S.W.3d 146
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Darrell James O'Neal, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Church of God in Christ, Inc., Bishop David A. Hall, Gospel Center Temple Church of God in Christ, and Gospel Temple Church of God in Christ.

Robert L.J. Spence, Jr., Bryan M. Meredith, and Veronica F. Coleman-Davis, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellees, L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc., Gospel Center Temple Church Moscow, Inc., Lonnie M. Haley, III, Jeremiah R. Haley, Ulysses C. Polk, Barry C. Turner, Milton Holt, Sr., and Erskine J. Murphy.

Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., Sharon G. Lee, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined. Holly Kirby, J., filed a concurring opinion.

Cornelia A. Clark, J.

We granted this appeal to determine whether the Court of Appeals properly affirmed the trial court's decision dismissing this lawsuit involving a dispute over the right to use and control church property for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. This doctrine derives from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and prohibits civil courts from resolving church disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice. We conclude that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply in this lawsuit. Accordingly,the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court's dismissal is reversed. Furthermore, we conclude that the undisputed facts establish that the plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment, and we remand this matter to the trial court for any other further proceedings and orders that may be necessary to afford the plaintiffs possession and control of the disputed church real property and to address the plaintiffs' requests for an accounting and control of the disputed church personal property.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

The Church of God in Christ, Incorporated ("COGIC") is a national not-for-profit religious corporation established on December 12, 1922, under the laws of Tennessee, with its principal business office located in Memphis. COGIC has adopted a hierarchical structure of governance for its member churches.1 The COGIC constitution, which provides "for the civil and ecclesiastical structure of the church together with laws, rules, and regulations for the entire church, including [local churches]" is compiled in The Official Manual.2 Pursuant to these governing principles, COGIC is divided into Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions, and a Jurisdictional Bishop presides over each Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction. The Official Manual declares that "[t]he Pastor of the local church shall be appointed by the Jurisdictional Bishop of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the Church." This provision also states: "All vacancies that occur in the pastorate of the local church shall be filled by the Jurisdictional Bishop. The supervision and management of the church shall remain with the Jurisdictional Bishop or his designee until such time as a pastor has been appointed to fill such vacancy."

According to the allegations of the second amended complaint, Gospel Center Temple COGIC ("Temple COGIC"), located at 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee, was founded "many years ago." At the time of its founding, Temple COGIC "assumed the vows of membership with [COGIC] and declared it[s] willingness to submit to and abide by the government of [COGIC]," including The Official Manual. In return, COGIC issued Temple COGIC "[a] certificate of membership"3 and assigned Temple COGIC to the Tennessee Headquarters Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction ("THEJ").

L. M. Haley, Jr. founded Temple COGIC and served as its duly appointed pastor until his death on October 10, 2009. Thereafter the Jurisdictional Bishop for THEJ, Bishop J.O. Patterson, Jr., "declined to name a pastor and temporarily assumed the pastorship of [Temple COGIC]," as authorized by The Official Manual.4

Bishop Patterson died in June 2011, and Bishop David A. Hall thereafter was appointed Jurisdictional Bishop for THEJ. Like his predecessor, Bishop Hall chose to serve as pastor of Temple COGIC rather than appoint someone else to the position. Unfortunately, not everyone at Temple COGIC was satisfied with Bishop Hall's decision, and in October 2011, those dissatisfied with the decision sought the advice of a lawyer, also an elder in COGIC, about their options. In a letter included in the record on appeal, this attorney summarized the advice he had given, explaining that the members of Temple COGIC had an "absolute right to vote to move to another [Ecclesiastical] [J]urisdiction" but cautioned that, "if they [were] to remain in COGIC[,] they must follow the church's polity, including accepting the Bishop's appointment of Pastors." He explained that, "if they desire[ed] to fellowship with another [Ecclesiastical] [J]urisdiction [of COGIC], they should present their petition to the General Board requesting a vote of the membership."

Thereafter, the General Secretary of COGIC received a letter advising that a majority of the members of Temple COGIC had voted to transfer to another Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction.5 The General Secretary responded with a letter explaining that the election would not be recognized as valid because it had not been conducted in compliance with COGIC procedures, contained in The Official Manual, for obtaining a transfer to another Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction. The General Secretary provided a copy of the applicable procedures and invited the recipients of the letter to contact his office should additional information or assistance be needed. The General Secretary did not receive any additional correspondence regarding a transfer.

However, on December 16, 2011, a corporate charter was filed with the Tennessee Secretary of State's Office creating Gospel Center Temple Church Moscow, Inc. ("Moscow Church"). The Moscow Church's corporate charter listed its business address as 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee, the same address as Temple COGIC. Neither the corporate charter nor any other document in the record on appeal indicates that the Moscow Church was organized as a member church of COGIC. Another Tennessee corporation, L. M. Haley Ministries, Incorporated ("L. M. Haley Ministries"), had been formed previously by the founding pastor of Temple COGIC and had also listed 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee, as its registered office and principal place of business. Nevertheless, according to a September 17, 2000 deed, the grantees for the real property located at this address were Temple COGIC, Ella Mary Cox, Milton E. Holt, Sr., Lonnie M. Haley, Janice Murphy, John W. Arnett, and Erskine J. Murphy, Trustees for the use and benefit of Temple COGIC [and] its assigns. Neither the Moscow Church nor L. M. Haley Ministries was listed on the deed as having any interest in the property. The September 17, 2000 deed also did not expressly list COGIC as having an interest in the property, but The Official Manual includes the following provision:

Real estate or other property may be acquired by purchase, gift[,] devise, or otherwise, by local churches. Where real or personal property is acquired by deed, the instrument of conveyance shall contain the following clause, to wit;
The said property is held in trust for the use and benefit of the members of the Church of God in Christ with National Headquarters in the City of Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee, and subject to the Charter, Constitution, Laws and Doctrines of said Church, now in full force and effect, or as they may be hereafter amended, changed or modifies [sic] by the General Assembly of said Church.

This same language is repeated, verbatim, in another part of The Official Manual.6

Despite the language of the September 17, 2000 deed and that of The Official Manual, on December 29, 2011, Barry C. Turner, Erskine J. Murphy, and Milton Holt, Sr., "holding themselves out to be the sole Trustees of [Temple COGIC] executed and recorded a Quit Claim Deed attempting to transfer" the real property located at 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee to the Moscow Church. On January 2, 2012, four days after the quit claim deed was executed, Bishop Hall attempted to hold services at Temple COGIC, but he was barred from entering the premises. A Fayette County Sheriff's Deputy allegedly called in by those associated with the Moscow Church advised Bishop Hall "that he should either leave or be arrested."

A month later, on February 2, 2012, this lawsuit was filed. Bishop Hall filed the initial complaint, individually and on behalf of Temple COGIC. After the complaint was amended once, the defense filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court concluded that Bishop Hall may have lacked standing to file the lawsuit on his own, but it granted him permission to file a second amended complaint. The second amended complaint, from which this appeal arises, was filed on July 29, 2013, by COGIC, Bishop Hall, individually and on behalf of Temple COGIC, and Temple COGIC, by and through its duly appointed trustee, John Arnett (collectively "the Plaintiffs"). Named as defendants in the second amended complaint were: (1) L. M. Haley Ministries; (2) the Moscow Church; (3) L. M. Haley, III, (4) Jeremiah R. Haley; (5) Ulysses C. Polk; (6) Barry C. Turner; (7) Milton Holt, Sr.; and (8) Erskine J. Murphy (collectively "the Defendants").

In the second amended complaint, the Plaintiffs alleged that the Moscow Church and L. M. Haley Ministries, by and through their directors, had "unlawfully assumed control of [Temple COGIC's] real property." As factual support for this assertion, the Plaintiffs alleged that Bishop Hall, Temple COGIC's duly appointed pastor and Jurisdictional Bishop, had been barred from entering Temple COGIC on...

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