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Amicus Analytica: September 5, 2023

A weekly column dedicated to decoding Mississippi Supreme Court wisdom and providing a brief summary of the law.

Thy Will Be Done, Your Honor

This past week, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued a written opinion reviewing a motion for summary judgment involving a church’s disaffiliation from its denomination’s district. This opinion covers a multitude of issues that span from property rights, contract issues, as well as a church’s exemption from certain legal matters. Specifically, this article will briefly discuss the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which forbids Mississippi courts from intruding into a church’s government. Buckle up, folks!

Kevin Beachy, Eddie Kinsey, Andrew Mulet, and Kris Williams v. Mississippi District Council for Assemblies of God, No. 2021-CA-01007-SCT
Justice Jim Kitchens grappled with a myriad of issues, including a Mississippi court’s authority in interfering with church matters, in the most recent decision handed down by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The case centers around the main petitioner, Kevin Beachy, who served as a pastor at Gulf Coast Worship Center (“GCWC”) in Long Beach, Mississippi. Beachy et. al v. Miss. District Council for Assemblies of God, (Miss. 2023). GCWC was affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination, which is governed by the General Council of the Assemblies of God (“General Council”). Id. However, its affiliate, the Mississippi District Council for Assemblies of God (“District”), specifically governs the denomination’s local churches located throughout Mississippi, including GCWC. Id. Therefore, the hierarchical line begins at the General Council and flows through the District and down to local churches like GCWC.

The present issue originated in January 2017, when Kevin Beachy failed to renew his credentials as an ordained pastor, leading to communications between Beachy and the District. Id. The District reminded Beachy that the General Council and District constitutions and bylaws required renewal of the credentials. Otherwise, he would be placed under investigation. Id. However, during these communications, Beachy informed the District of his and GCWC’s intention to disaffiliate from the denomination, ultimately putting the District on notice. Id. On March 19, 2017, during an independent meeting, the GCWC congregation voted to disaffiliate from the denomination and remove a reverter clause from its constitution and bylaws that would cause the property to revert to the District if it ceased operating as a “church body.” Id. at 2. Following a dispute in the Chancery Court of the First Judicial District of Harrison County, the chancellor granted the District’s summary judgment motion on the basis that that “the defendants, as well as the congregation, had no authority to take any action, including that taken at the March 19, 2017 meeting” regarding the disaffiliation from the denomination. Id. at 7. The chancellor also determined that the real property and chattel were under the control of the District. Id.

On appeal, the Defendants presented a multitude of issues, though the focus of this article will center around whether the grant of summary judgment violated the ecclesiastical doctrine and, ultimately, who is the rightful owner of the church property. Id. at 8. (For the remaining issues, look to ¶16 of the Majority opinion).
Getting into the discussion of the opinion, the Court notes that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is applicable. Id. at 10. Before discussing more, let’s dive into some background and details regarding this exemption from the Court’s authority. The doctrine finds its basis in the interpretation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which provides, “Congress makes no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” U.S. Const. Amend. I. SCOTUS first recognized this doctrine in Watson v. Jones, concerning a dispute between a congregation of a church who disagreed over prevalent issues of the time, such as slavery and fundamental church management. 80 U.S. 679, 13 Wall. 20 L. Ed. 666 (1872). SCOTUS ultimately determined that it refused to be the arbiter of church doctrine, basing its decision on the principle that “whenever the questions of discipline or faith or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final.” Essentially, the Court allows the church’s governing bodies (here, the District) to set these standards so as not to cross lines and retain the separation of church and state. Later, in the decisions of Kedroff, the Court recognized that this doctrine was applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am. 344 U.S. 94, 166, 73 S. Ct. 1443, 97 L. Ed. 120 (1952). Specifically, the doctrine requires:

For where resolution of such disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry by civil courts into religious law and polity, the First and Fourteenth Amendments mandate that civil courts shall not disturb the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal within a church of hierarchical polity, but must accept such decisions as binding on the, in their application to the religious issues of doctrine or polity before them.

Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese for U.S. and Can. v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 709, 96 So. Ct. 2372, 49 L. Ed. 2d (1976) (emphasis added).

“The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine recognizes that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment precludes judicial review of claims that require resolution of ‘strictly’ and purely ecclesiastical’ questions.” McRaney v. N. Am. Mission Bd. of S. Baptist Convention, Inc., 966 F. 3d 346, 348 (5th. Cir. 2020). The opinion continues in stating that “matters of church government…constitute purely ecclesiastical questions.” Id. While the chancellor determined that the ultimate issue was the continued affiliation between GCWC and the General Council/District, this Court finds that making a determination of whether GCWC is to remain under the General Council’s control intrudes into a church’s government that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine was designed to avoid. Id.

Despite this, the Court finds that there remains a genuine issue of material fact in regard to the ownership of the property. Beachy at 12. While courts are not allowed to intervene in a church's government, the court can still address issues pertaining to a church's property rights. Mt. Helm Baptist Church v. Jones, 79 Miss. 488, 30 So. 714, 716 (1901). To further this basis, the State has an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes. Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem’l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 445, 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. 3d 2d 658 (1969). In determining whether the property rightfully belonged to GCWC or the District, the chancellor examined the record and determined that the "personal property, real property, and improvements" were all under the control of the District. Beachy at 15. However, the Court disagreed, as the District never gained ownership of the property through the demonstration of actual transfer of the property, an express trust, or clear and convincing evidence that the intent on the part of the congregation created a trust. Id at 15, (citing Church of God Pentecostal, 716 So. 2d at 206). Since an express trust was never conveyed, the Court examined whether an implied trust could have been created through the actions and conduct of the parties. Id.

Mississippi recognizes two trusts: constructive trusts, which may arise when one unfairly holds a property interest, and a resulting trust, which arises from the parties' intention, such as one person pays for the property interest but holds the title for the benefit of another. Id. The Court determined that both parties presented evidence creating a genuine issue of fact that would not survive summary judgment. Id. The District presented evidence of GCWC’s application to the denomination, which claimed that the congregation assumed the responsibilities set forth in the constitution and bylaws, and additionally, a document was also produced that the GCWC congregation agreed to be governed by the District and “have the property properly deeded with the names of Assemblies of God on the deed…” Id. However, the petitioners presented an affidavit of a member who served as GCWC’s secretary during the time that the deed was created that she had no recollection of the lead pastor or any member of the congregation at the time was informed that the deed would have any other name on it other than GCWC. Id. Ultimately, the chancellor's grant of summary judgment was reversed, and all issues were remanded in order to determine the ownership of the property. Id.

Chief Justice Mike Randolph dissented from the majority’s finding that the matter should be reversed on account that Beachy et. al filed a motion to dismiss, alleging that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the claims brought by the General Council regarding GCWC and its property. Id. at 20. Chief Justice Randolph determined that the language of the District’s constitution and bylaws included in the majority opinion, which allows for General Council affiliated churches to have the right of self-government and the right to acquire and hold property, no longer applied due to Beachy and the congregation’s failure to follow the practices of the church (renewal of Beachy’s pastoral credentials and the March 2017 meeting pertaining to disaffiliation). Id. Upon review of the General Council’s constitution and bylaws, Beachy lacked the authority to hold the meeting for disaffiliation and amend the bylaws to remove the reverter clause. Id. Therefore, Beachy and the congregation’s attempts to disaffiliate were void, and the property they sought to control ultimately fell to the authority of the District. Id.

In summary, this case highlighted the challenges between church autonomy, property rights, and jurisdiction. The resolution led to a reversal of the District’s summary judgment motion and further consideration to determine the property ownership.

Author’s Note: In addition, I will be linking two law review articles that delved into the intricacies of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which I relied on for some of the research on this topic. If it interests you as much as it interests me, I recommend reading them!

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