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By: William McDonald, Vol. 21 Staff Writer
“Churches exist primarily for the spiritual edification of the adherents of a faith tradition. They are established and operated in accordance with religious precepts. Churches may build sites to house worship, fellowship, community, and teaching. They simultaneously have a secular existence.” These words from Justice Anita Earls’ opinion in Nation Ford Baptist Church, Inc. v. Davis touch on a reality churchgoers know all too well. We step into a different world when we enter the church, a world governed by rules often different from those we live by in our everyday lives. On Sunday, a pastor might quote a teaching from Paul, urging us to finish the race of life to the end; on Monday, the only race we’re thinking of is the one ending at 5. But despite their differences, churches don’t escape the outside world. A North Carolina church recently found itself squarely within this dichotomy.
In 2015, Nations Ford Community Church in Charlotte was struck by tragedy when its beloved pastor, Bishop Phillip Davis, died suddenly. The church’s board decided that Bishop Davis’ son, Pastor RJ Davis (no relation to UNC Basketball player RJ Davis), would succeed him as pastor on an at-will basis. Pastor Davis’ tenure was lackluster as the church lost 60% of its membership, prompting the board to remove Pastor Davis in 2019 and initiate a battle that has gone all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
American jurisprudence is quite remarkable, due in part to our commitment to separation of church and state. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” Separated into two parts, the first section, the “Establishment Clause,” was written to prevent the kind of national church England had (and still does) at the time of the revolution. A seminal case Establishment Clause is Engle v. Vitale, where the Supreme Court held that New York’s prayer program established “the religious beliefs embodied in the Regent’s prayer,” a nondenominational prayer created by the State Board of Regents to help teach morals in schools. the second clause, the “Free Exercise” clause, strives to prevent coerced religious practices or penalties for failure to abide by the official religion. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court held that a school had to allow a football coach to pray at the 50-yard-line after the game. It’s not always possible to draw a line between these clauses; the court tried to balance a coach’s right to the free exercise of his religion with the specter of the establishment clause when he prayed after games.
This relationship between the clauses has prompted the Court to recognize a “play in the joints” between them. The phrase comes from a 1970 Supreme Court case: “there is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference” (emphasis added).
Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral
This benevolent neutrality has led to the neutral application of secular law to disputes within a church. A seminal case in this area is Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church. Following the Russian revolution, the North American wing of the Russian Orthodox Church declared itself independent from Moscow, resulting in a disagreement over whose archbishop should occupy St. Nicholas Cathedral. The New York Court of Appeals declared that the American branch would be granted control, citing Article 5-C, a law passed by the New York legislature granting legal autonomy to the American branch. However, the Orthodox Church in Moscow never relinquished its control over the American church. The Supreme Court struck down Article 5-C, reasoning that the New York legislature essentially attempted, to establish the Russian Orthodox Church in America in violation of the First Amendment. Justice Reed wrote:
[T]he New York Court of Appeals . . . displaces one church administrator with another. It passes the control of matters strictly ecclesiastical from one church authority to another. It thus intrudes . . .into the forbidden area of religious freedom contrary to the principles of the First Amendment.
The Case at Hand
This brings us to the dispute between Pastor Davis and the Board. One of the primary issues facing the court was which bylaws were real: the ones used by the board to fire Davis, or the ones that required a congregational vote to remove Davis? Justice Earls noted that the primary issue (like in Kedroff) was whether the court would have to interpret religious matters. What distinguishes this case from Kedroff is the secular nature of the dispute. As noted above, churches are constantly engaged in secular activities, and the government must provide a place to resolve disputes that arise in the course of these activities; otherwise, churches would make laws suit themselves. Justice Earls notes that only church doctrine and practice are excluded from courts creed. This includes their form of worship, adoption of membership regulation, and power to exclude individuals from membership.
Luckily for Pastor Davis, some of his claims could be “resolved by application of secular, neutral legal principles,” such as which bylaws were in force, and whether or not those bylaws were correctly followed. This makes intuitive sense. If the matter of which bylaws were in force is contested, the legal system will go through discovery, depose witnesses, and find out which bylaws the church was operating under at the time Davis was fired, a matter of fact. The court can then determine the circumstances under which Davis was fired and figure out if they were in accord with the bylaws the church itself had adopted, serving more as a third-party arbitrator. This is far different than the situation presented in Kedroff, where the New York legislature granted legal existence to an ecclesial body, something that only a church could decide for itself. A court can decide when bylaws have been adopted; it cannot decide when a church begins to exist.
Unluckily for Pastor Davis, the easy cases stop there. Davis sought to be reinstated by the court as the pastor of Nations Ford, something Justice Earls notes would be impermissible entanglement. Similarly, Davis sought “relief for breach of fiduciary duties,” something the court could not do as that would involve whether or not the Board acted in the best interests of the Church. Deciding this would involve determining for Nations Ford why it exists in the first place, a gross infringement on its right to free exercise. The trickiest claim in the court’s mind is Davis’ claim that the church be required to reinstate him as pastor, since, he claimed, they breached his employment contract with the church. The court concedes that this issue could be resolved by applying neutral principles of law but notes that they are not at the stage of granting relief at this point; they are merely determining which claims may involve impermissible entanglement of courts and religion.
It seems that the North Carolina Supreme Court has struck the best balance possible in a case like this, and Justice Earl’s careful analysis of each issue with respect to the bounds of church and state should be applauded by everyone who seeks good governance and thriving churches. But just because the court did well in this instance does mean every court will always balance these issues deftly. My hope is that every reader of this blog post will gain a new appreciation for the thorny issues present in the Religion Clauses, understand something of the history and terminology behind the litigation of those clauses, and follow cases like this, in North Carolina in beyond, with a critical and unflinching eye. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance; we ordinary citizens must take upon ourselves the duty of reading, understanding, and, if necessary, criticizing, the courts delineations of our religious freedoms.