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Burns Church, Inc. v. Alabama Dist. Council of Assemblies of God, Inc.

Supreme Court of Alabama

October 24, 2014

Burns Church, Inc., and Stephen Etheridge
v.
Alabama District Council of the Assemblies of God, Inc., and Burns Assembly of God Church

Released for Publication August 5, 2015.

Appeal from Geneva Circuit Court. (CV-13-90082). William H. Filmore, Trial Judge.

AFFIRMED.

For Appellant: Joseph A. Morris, William S. Morris, Morris, Cary, Andrews, Talmadge & Driggers, LLC, Dothan.

For Appellee: Jeffery D. Hatcher, Geneva.

Stuart, Bolin, Parker, Murdock, Shaw, Main, Wise, and Bryan, JJ., concur.

OPINION

PER CURIAM.

AFFIRMED. NO OPINION.

See Rule 53(a)(1) and (a)(2)(F), Ala. R. App. P.

DISSENT

MOORE, Chief Justice (dissenting).

I respectfully dissent from the Court's decision to affirm the summary judgment in favor of the Alabama District Council of the Assemblies of God, Inc. (" the District Council" ), and Burns Assembly of God Church in their action against Stephen Etheridge and Burns Church, Inc. Though this ecclesiastical dispute incidentally affects property rights, the courts of the State of Alabama lack jurisdiction to intervene in this dispute, which is based upon disparate interpretations of church governing documents and doctrine and conflicting claims of church membership. I believe that the Court should have dismissed this appeal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

I. The Parties

The District Council, an appellee, is located in Montgomery and is the governing body of all Assemblies of God churches in Alabama. The District Council incorporated in 1942 as a nonprofit religious corporation under Alabama law. The District Council acts under the General Council of the Assemblies of God, which is located in Springfield, Missouri, and is the governing body of all Assemblies of God churches in the United States (" the General Council" ). Burns Assembly of God Church, the other appellee, is located in Geneva County and is an unincorporated religious association that acts under the authority of the District Council and the General Council. Burns Church, Inc., an appellant, is also located in Geneva County. It was incorporated in 2006 as a nonprofit religious corporation under Alabama law. Stephen Etheridge, the other appellant, is the pastor of Burns Church, Inc.

II. Facts and Procedural History

Burns Assembly of God Church has maintained a house of worship in Geneva County for close to 100 years. For many years, Burns Assembly of God Church has been affiliated with both the District Council and the General Council. In October 2002, the members of Burns Assembly of God Church called Etheridge to be their pastor. In that capacity, Etheridge also served as chairman of the board of directors of the church.

At some point, Etheridge and the directors voted to excommunicate a number of church members whom Etheridge and the directors believed to be contentious and disruptive, who were not tithing as

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required by the standards for church membership in the bylaws of Burns Assembly of God Church, or who were no longer actively attending worship services, which is a cause for discipline under the bylaws. The course of action chosen by Etheridge and the directors caused disharmony and contention between, on the one side, Etheridge, the directors, and the remaining members (hereinafter referred to collectively as " the Etheridge faction" ) and, on the other side, the excommunicated members (" the excommunicated faction" ). The excommunicated faction did not appeal the decision on excommunication, as allowed by the bylaws. However, the excommunicated faction did request a hearing with the District Council, whose leaders met with approximately 40 people who expressed their concerns about Etheridge's leadership.[1]

The excommunicated faction continued to assemble and to meet for weekly worship at another location, also under the name Burns Assembly of God Church. The excommunicated faction associated itself with the District Council, which instructed Etheridge and the directors to seek to restore the excommunicated faction to fellowship pursuant to the General Council's bylaws and the bylaws of Burns Assembly of God Church. The District Council attempted, without success, to mediate the dispute between the Etheridge faction and the excommunicated faction.

The District Council recognized the excommunicated faction as being the only true members of Burns Assembly of God Church. The excommunicated faction operated under the District Council's authority, adhered to Assemblies of God doctrines, and retained the District Council's suggested constitution and bylaws. The excommunicated faction appointed a board of trustees and officers and, in time, chose a pastor. The Etheridge faction incorporated as a nonprofit corporation and took the corporate name of Burns Assembly of God, Inc.

Etheridge served as president of Burns Assembly of God, Inc. He was also serving as pastor of the church operating as Burns Assembly of God, Inc., when the District Council announced its decision to remove him as pastor, to revoke his ministerial credentials, to dissolve the board of trustees of Burns Assembly of God, Inc., and to place Burns Assembly of God, Inc., under the supervision of the District Council. Etheridge challenged his dismissal under a provision of the bylaws of the General Council, and the District Council subsequently rescinded its actions.

After further attempts at reconciliation failed, the Dothan Sectional Committee of the District Council sent Etheridge and Burns Assembly of God, Inc., a letter in which it recommended that the church " come under the supervision of the Dothan Sectional Committee." Otherwise, the letter warned, the Committee would " recommend to the District Presbytery the withdrawal of endorsement of the ...


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