Reid v. Gholson, No. 840057

Docket NºNo. 840057
Citation327 S.E.2d 107, 229 Va. 179
Case DateMarch 08, 1985
CourtSupreme Court of Virginia

Page 107

327 S.E.2d 107
229 Va. 179
Milton A. REID, et al.
v.
Ulysses GHOLSON, et al.
Record No. 840057.
Supreme Court of Virginia.
March 8, 1985.

[229 Va. 181]

Page 108

William M. Kunstler, New York City, James F. Gay, Norfolk (Legal Center of James F. Gay, Norfolk, on briefs), for appellants.

Edward Delk, Norfolk (Delk, Jackson & Holmes, Norfolk, on brief), for appellees.

[229 Va. 179] Present: All the Justices.

[229 Va. 181] RUSSELL, Justice.

This appeal is an outgrowth of a protracted and complex dispute between two factions in the membership of a congregational church. Both factions, at various times, resorted to the courts. Among other things, the court below appointed a commissioner in chancery to "run and oversee" a congregational meeting to insure its fairness. The sole question presented on appeal is whether that ruling was an unwarranted breach of the principle of separation of church and state embodied in art. I, § 16 of the Constitution of Virginia and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

I. FACTS and LEGAL PROCEEDINGS.

In order that the issue may be seen in proper perspective, a detailed examination must be made of the facts and legal proceedings below, as shown by the record, including those which preceded the filing of this suit and those which took place pending appeal. The New Calvary Baptist Church is a large independent congregational church in the City of Norfolk. It has no written constitution or by-laws and has traditionally been governed by majority vote of its members present and voting at annual congregational meetings. It has never been subject to the control of any hierarchical or supercongregational authority. Customarily, notices of proposed congregational meetings were announced at worship services on two successive Sundays prior to the meeting and also were published in the newsletter mailed to each member of the church.

Milton A. Reid has been pastor of the church throughout the period of the dispute. One faction of the membership, which includes several deacons, consists of those who support his views. For convenience, this group will be referred to as "adherents." 1 Those who oppose Reid's views, for convenience, will be called [229 Va. 182] "dissenters." Those who appear here as appellees, representing the dissenting faction, are Ulysses Gholson and Floyd Lewis, although other individuals have appeared in related litigation as representatives of this group. Gholson and Lewis are trustees of the church, elected by the membership in 1978 to hold title to the church property and appointed in 1980 by court order to serve in that capacity pursuant to Code § 57-8.

In November 1982, certain dissenters filed a bill of complaint against the pastor and certain adherents, 2 asking for a court-ordered congregational meeting to consider resolutions calling for audit of the financial records of the church and for termination of the services of Reid as pastor. The adherents filed an answer asserting that the court lacked jurisdiction of a controversy

Page 109

involving the internal governance of a church due to the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment. The court, by order entered January 14, 1983, overruled this objection and ordered all parties to hold a congregational meeting on March 31, 1983, to consider the above resolutions and to conduct any other proper business. The order also enjoined Reid from installing officers, ordaining deacons, and setting up an "Executive Council" to govern the church until the congregational meeting had been held.

Ignoring the court's order, Reid convened a "special meeting" of the congregation on January 30, 1983, without giving the customary notice. On motion of the dissenters, the court, on March 7, 1983, held the January 30 meeting invalid for lack of proper notice and declared all actions taken at the meeting void. The court set March 10, 1983 as a new date for the congregational meeting. The court-ordered meeting was not held because, in addition to federal proceedings, 3 the adherents noted appeals to this Court from the orders of January 14 and March 7. The trial court enjoined any further action in the case pending appeal. We refused the adherents' petition for appeal on January 15, 1984.

At the January 30, 1983 meeting, later held void for inadequate notice, Reid purported to "silence" eighteen dissenters, including Gholson, forbidding them to speak or vote at that or any subsequent meeting. Thereafter, Reid called a "special meeting" of the congregation on May 8, 1983. There, various controversial matters[229 Va. 183] were discussed, including the proposal, advocated by the adherents, to erect a twelve million dollar "senior citizens home" on church-owned land, to be called "Calvary Towers." Notwithstanding the "silencing" of certain dissenters, the dissenters won the support of a majority of those present and voting. Reid delayed announcing the results of the voting for two hours, during which time "absentee cards" were produced from church members not present. Although absentee or proxy voting had never been authorized by the congregation, and was contrary to its custom, Reid announced that, with the addition of the absentee ballots, the adherents had won.

In September 1983, Reid mailed a notice to the members that the annual meeting of the congregation would be held on Thursday, October 27, 1983. At that meeting, the primary item on the agenda was to be the adoption of a written constitution for the church. The proposed constitution would terminate the congregation's right to vote on all controversial matters; instead, such matters would be decided by an "Executive Council." The constitution also would permit the "termination" of a person's membership at any meeting without prior notice. Under the proposed constitution and by-laws, control over the church property "and such other responsibilities as may be assigned" were to be vested in a "Property Chairperson." The status of the court-appointed trustees was unclear; the proposed constitution did not mention them.

Under date of October 24, three days before the meeting, Reid mailed letters to Gholson and 62 other dissenters, informing them that they were "not certified to participate in the Annual Meeting because of disciplinary action by the church." The letters enclosed a copy of a purported "Code of Conduct," which stated that it had been adopted by "The Executive Council, and the Minister, Milton, the Disciple." 4 The "Code of Conduct" provided that members not "certified by the church office," members "silenced by the church," and "members whose actions violate the spirit of the Church Covenant" would not be

Page 110

permitted to participate in the meeting. The Code also promised silencing, after warning, to "[a]ny member who disregards or disrespects the chair."

[229 Va. 184] On October 21, 1983, Gholson and Lewis, for the dissenters, filed this suit 5 by bill in equity in the circuit court. Reciting the undemocratic proceedings of the adherents in the past, they asked for the appointment of a Special Commissioner to "run and oversee" the proposed congregational meeting "in the interest of having a fair and impartial annual meeting." The case was set for hearing on the morning of October 27, but at 9:34 a.m. on that day, the adherents filed a petition for removal to the United States District Court, invoking 28 U.S.C. § 1446. 6 After a hearing, the federal court determined that it had no jurisdiction and entered an order at 2:00 p.m. on October 27, remanding the case to the circuit court. After conferring with the judge of the circuit court, the United States District judge instructed counsel to appear in the circuit court at 3:00 p.m.

At 3:00 p.m. on October 27, the circuit court heard evidence and received exhibits filed by the dissenters. Notwithstanding their direct, personal notice of the hearing, neither the adherents nor their counsel appeared.

The court made the following findings: (1) At the proposed congregational meeting, the members would be called upon to decide the right, title, and control of all property held in trust for the congregation, that both civil and property rights were involved, and that substantial justice would be promoted by a fair and impartial meeting; (2) that the adherents proposed to adopt, at the meeting, a constitution which would divest the trustees of title to the church property and vest the same in a "Property Chairperson," and which would take from the congregation its right to resolve any controversy concerning church property; (3) that the adherents were charged with having conducted the undemocratic proceedings described above, which, if persisted in, would result in an unfair and partial annual meeting; (4) that the court was not required to resolve any ecclesiastical issues; and (5) that the civil and property rights in dispute could be resolved by the use of neutral principles of law, without violating the First Amendment.

The court granted the petition for appointment of a Special Commissioner to "run and oversee" the annual meeting, to take an accurate count of the voting, and to make a report to the court of the results, including "any irregularities that may occur." The [229 Va. 185] dissenters nominated William Mazel, a commissioner in chancery, for this duty. He accepted and was appointed. The court also designated a deputy sheriff to accompany the commissioner and to "receive such orders from him as appear necessary."

The meeting scheduled for October 27 was not held. Instead, the adherents filed a petition to enjoin Commissioner Mazel from "interfering with the ecclesiastical and internal government of the said congregation." The court held a hearing on November 23 on this motion, at which both sides presented evidence. On December 19, 1983, the court entered an order denying the adherents' prayer for injunction. On August 16, 1984, we granted adherents an appeal...

To continue reading

Request your trial
16 practice notes
  • Masterson v. Diocese Texas, No. 11–0332.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • March 21, 2014
    ...163, 171 (2009); Foss v. Dykstra, 342 N.W.2d 220, 222 (S.D.1983); Jeffs v. Stubbs, 970 P.2d 1234, 1250–51 (Utah 1998); Reid v. Gholson, 229 Va. 179, 327 S.E.2d 107, 112 (1985); Wis. Conf. Bd. of Trs. v. Culver, 243 Wis.2d 394, 627 N.W.2d 469, 475–76 (2001). 7. Several amici supporting the d......
  • Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, Record No. 120919.
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • April 18, 2013
    ...court can decide the case by reference to neutral principles of law, without reference to issues of faith and doctrine.Reid v. Gholson, 229 Va. 179, 187–88, 327 S.E.2d 107, 112 (1985) (citations omitted). In Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 61 L.Ed.2d 775 (1979), the United ......
  • Fowler v. Bailey, No. 67146
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • December 8, 1992
    ...Similarly, civil courts have examined the regularity of church procedure when property rights are subject to deprivation. Reid v. Gholson, 229 Va. 179, 327 S.E.2d 107, 113 (1985) cert. denied, 474 U.S. 824, 106 S.Ct. 80, 88 L.Ed.2d 65 (1985). However, as we are about to explain, the case be......
  • Masterson v. Diocese of Nw. Tex., No. 11-0332
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • August 30, 2013
    ...171 (S.C. 2009); Foss v. Dykstra, 342 N.W.2d 220, 222 (S.D. 1983); Jeffs v. Stubbs, 970 P.2d 1234, 1250-51 (Utah 1998); Reid v. Gholson, 327 S.E.2d 107, 112 (Va. 1985); Wis. Conf. Bd. of Trs. v. Culver, 627 N.W.2d 469, 475-76 (Wis. 2001). 7. Several amici supporting the deference approach c......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
16 cases
  • Masterson v. Diocese Texas, No. 11–0332.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • March 21, 2014
    ...163, 171 (2009); Foss v. Dykstra, 342 N.W.2d 220, 222 (S.D.1983); Jeffs v. Stubbs, 970 P.2d 1234, 1250–51 (Utah 1998); Reid v. Gholson, 229 Va. 179, 327 S.E.2d 107, 112 (1985); Wis. Conf. Bd. of Trs. v. Culver, 243 Wis.2d 394, 627 N.W.2d 469, 475–76 (2001). 7. Several amici supporting the d......
  • Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, Record No. 120919.
    • United States
    • Virginia Supreme Court of Virginia
    • April 18, 2013
    ...court can decide the case by reference to neutral principles of law, without reference to issues of faith and doctrine.Reid v. Gholson, 229 Va. 179, 187–88, 327 S.E.2d 107, 112 (1985) (citations omitted). In Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 61 L.Ed.2d 775 (1979), the United ......
  • Fowler v. Bailey, No. 67146
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • December 8, 1992
    ...Similarly, civil courts have examined the regularity of church procedure when property rights are subject to deprivation. Reid v. Gholson, 229 Va. 179, 327 S.E.2d 107, 113 (1985) cert. denied, 474 U.S. 824, 106 S.Ct. 80, 88 L.Ed.2d 65 (1985). However, as we are about to explain, the case be......
  • Masterson v. Diocese of Nw. Tex., No. 11-0332
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Texas
    • August 30, 2013
    ...171 (S.C. 2009); Foss v. Dykstra, 342 N.W.2d 220, 222 (S.D. 1983); Jeffs v. Stubbs, 970 P.2d 1234, 1250-51 (Utah 1998); Reid v. Gholson, 327 S.E.2d 107, 112 (Va. 1985); Wis. Conf. Bd. of Trs. v. Culver, 627 N.W.2d 469, 475-76 (Wis. 2001). 7. Several amici supporting the deference approach c......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT