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Ervin v. Lilydale Progressive Missionary Baptist Church

July 12, 2004

[5] RUBIN ERVIN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
LILYDALE PROGRESSIVE MISSIONARY BAPTIST CHURCH, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable John Madden, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McNULTY

[8]  This appeal arises from a simple set of undisputed facts. In 2003, a church's board members voted to remove a pastor from his pastoral duties. The church's bylaws provided that the congregation could vote to terminate a pastor's service, and no provision permitted the board to terminate a pastor's service without a vote of the church's members. The pastor sued for an injunction to prevent the church from terminating his service as pastor without such a vote. The church responded that the employee handbook and the church covenant gave the board the power to remove the pastor. After a trial, the court refused to interfere with the church's ecclesiastical decision to terminate the pastor's service. The judge dismissed the complaint.

[9]  On appeal the pastor contends that the trial court could determine whether the proper church authority made the decision to terminate the pastor's service without deciding matters of religious doctrine. We agree and therefore we reverse the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

[10]   BACKGROUND

[11]   The bylaws of Lilydale Progressive Baptist Church (Lilydale) provide:

[12]   "Upon recommendation by the Joint Boards of the Church, the Pastor's service may be terminated by a vote of two-thirds of the members present and qualified to vote."

[13]   Reverend Rubin Ervin served as Lilydale's pastor. Lilydale's joint boards moved to declare the pulpit vacant at two separate meetings in 2002. Both times fewer than two-thirds of the congregation voted to remove the pastor. In March 2003 the joint boards in a special meeting voted to dismiss Reverend Ervin from his pastoral service at Lilydale. The boards did not submit the issue to a vote of the general membership.

[14]   After the meeting, the joint boards sent Reverend Ervin a letter to inform him that it terminated his employment. The following Sunday, Reverend Ervin returned to the church to conduct Sunday service. Members of the boards called the Chicago police department. The police attempted to remove Reverend Ervin from the church during the service.

[15]   Reverend Ervin sued to enjoin the church from terminating his service as pastor without following the procedures established by the bylaws. The joint boards responded that Reverend Ervin engaged in church activities while under the influence of alcohol, in violation of Lilydale's employee handbook. The boards claimed that the handbook and the church covenant gave them the power to terminate the pastor's service. In the covenant the church members "engage to watch over, to pray for, to exhort and stir up each other to every good word and work; to guard each other's reputation, not needlessly exposing the infirmities of others."

[16]   At trial, various members of Lilydale testified that they saw Reverend Ervin, apparently under the influence of alcohol, at various church functions. The trial judge said that although the handbook states that the church can terminate the employment of an employee, including Reverend Ervin, for alcohol use, "there's a provision in the by-laws that states that if you're going to terminate [the pastor], you do it a certain way. *** [T]he handbook and bylaws are not contradictory." However, the trial court found that the joint boards made an ecclesiastical decision to remove Reverend Ervin from his pastoral service, and therefore the court refused to exercise jurisdiction to resolve Reverend Ervin's claims. The court dismissed the complaint. This appeal followed.

[17]   ANALYSIS

[18]   We must decide whether the exercise of jurisdiction to decide the dispute between the parties would violate the first and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution. We review this legal issue de novo. Cleeland v. Gilbert, 334 Ill. App. 3d 297, 300 (2002); Keller v. Walker, 319 Ill. App. 3d 67, 70 (2001).

[19]   Under the first and fourteenth amendments, state courts must not decide matters of religious doctrine. Amato v. Greenquist, 287 Ill. App. 3d 921, 926 (1997). But a court may resolve a dispute that arises within a church if the dispute does not require determination of any doctrinal issue. Bivin v. Wright, 275 Ill. App. 3d 899, 903 (1995). Civil courts may apply neutral legal principles " to interpret provisions of religious documents involving *** nondoctrinal matters, to the extent that the analysis can be done in purely secular terms." Abrams v. Watchtower Bible & Tract Society of New York, Inc., 306 Ill. App. 3d 1006, 1011 (1999); see also People ex rel. Muhammad v. Muhammad-Rahmah, 289 Ill. App. 3d 740, 744 (1997).

[20]   In Muhammad, a corporation organized to promote the Islamic faith operated a mosque. Some members of the corporation's board of directors voted to remove its president. Muhammad, 289 Ill. App. 3d at 742. The corporation's bylaws required notice to all directors and a majority vote of the directors for removal of a president. Muhammad, 289 Ill. App. 3d at 745. The board members who voted to remove the president characterized the removal as an issue of religious doctrine, and they relied on a written document entitled "'The Top Islamic Agreement Commitment for the Cause of Allah (SWT).'" Muhammad, 289 Ill. App. 3d at 743. According to the agreement, any member of the board could call for the termination of the service of a president if the president had violated church rules. The board members alleged that the president had violated such rules. Muhammad, 289 Ill. App. 3d at 743-44. The court found that the agreement set forth reasons for termination, but it did not ...


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