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Taylor v. Paradise Missionary Baptist Church

Supreme Court of Alabama

July 28, 2017

Charles Brookins Taylor et al.
Paradise Missionary Baptist Church et al.

         Appeal from Choctaw Circuit Court (CV-14-900007)

          BOLIN, Justice.

         Charles Brookins Taylor and others identified later in this opinion appeal from an order of the Choctaw Circuit Court holding that Taylor was rightfully removed as the pastor of the Paradise Missionary Baptist Church ("PMBC").

         Facts and Procedural History

         PMBC was organized in 1993 by Lenora Ray, her late husband Harding Ray, and Thelma Taylor. The members of PMBC initially held church services in Lenora's home until the church acquired property at 1106 East Pushmataha Street in Butler. A $20, 000 gift to PMBC by Lenora and her late husband made it possible for the church to acquire the property. PMBC has, since its inception, been affiliated with the Gilfield District Missionary Baptist Association, the Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention, and the National Baptist Convention. Although PMBC is affiliated with those entities, they do not control PMBC; it remains, as described in the church's bylaws, a "self-determining-autonomous body under the Lordship of Jesus Christ." Charles Brookins Taylor, Thelma's brother, became the pastor at PMBC in 2007.

         On August 18, 2010, the members of the congregation of PMBC decided to organize PMBC as a domestic nonprofit corporation pursuant to § 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Also on August 18, 2010, the members of PMBC voted to adopt bylaws. Article 3 of the bylaws sets forth PMBC's purpose as being "to advance the Kingdom of Jesus Christ." Article 4 of the bylaws sets forth PMBC's mission statement: "The mission of PMBC is (1) to be a purpose driven church, 'a church that acts on faith' -- Heb. 11:1-6; (2) to practice the Great Commission -- St. Matthew 28:19-20, and the Great Commandment -- St. Matthew 22:34-40; and (3) to glorify God by ministering to the spiritual and Human needs in the name of Christ." Article 6 provides that PMBC is a "self-determining-autonomous body under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, " the government of which "is vested in the body of the believers who compose it, " and that it is "subject to the control of no other ecclesiastical body." Article 7 of the bylaws states that "PMBC receives the Scriptures as its authority in matters of church and practice." Matters of church discipline are found in Article 9. Article 9.02 provides:

"TERMINATION OF MEMBERSHIP: Any person may be terminated from membership by any of the following methods:
"A. By Letter. Any member in full and regular standing who desires a letter of recommendation to a designated church of like faith and order, is entitled to receive it upon his/her request, and such a letter shall be granted by PMBC.
"B. Uniting with another church. If a member of PMBC unites with another church his or her membership in PMBC is terminated automatically.
"C. By exclusion. A member is dismissed after recommendation by the pastor and deacons, and by a vote of the church due reasons and circumstances provided in ARTICLE 9, section 4 -- Church Discipline. The pastor and deacons will do all they can to counsel the member for restoration prior to action of dismissal or a request of the member to be dismissed from church membership.
"D. INACTIVE MEMBERS. When a person has manifested a lack of interest in the support and life of PMBC for a year by failure to attend services, to communicate with PMBC, or to contribute to it through tithing and general offering, his/her name may be placed on the Inactive List upon recommendation of the pastor and deacons, and confirmed by PMBC.
"1. Persons whose names are on the inactive membership list shall not be counted or reported as members and shall not take part in church business meetings or be eligible to vote or to hold office.
"2. Any person whose name is on the inactive membership list may be reinstated to active membership by recommendation of the Pastor and Deacons, and majority vote of the church.
"E. PROLONGED INACTIVE MEMBER. The church may, after faithful efforts to make such action unnecessary, ... terminate the membership of persons ... whose names appear on the inactive membership rolls for at least (3) consecutive years. The church shall keep a permanent list of such persons."

         Article 9.04 provides:

"A. Should any unhappy difference arise among members, the aggrieved member shall follow a tender spirit, the rules given by our Lord in St. Matthew 18:15-17. If the issue is not resolved, the aggrieved member then takes the issue before the Deacons.
"B. Should any case of gross breach of covenant and doctrine, or of public scandal, occur, the Deacons in counsel with the pastor shall endeavor to resolve the conflict, and if this effort fails, shall report the case to the church. The offender, at this stage of resolution, shall not hold a leadership role in the church, pending further action taken by the church.
"C. All such proceedings shall be pervaded by a spirit of Christian kindness and Forbearance, but should and adverse decision be reached, PMBC may proceed to Admonish or declare the offender to be no longer in the membership of PMBC."

Article 11 of the bylaws addresses PMBC's leadership and states that "[t]he leadership of the church shall consist of the Pastor, Deacons Ministry, Trustee Ministry, Women Missionary Ministry's President, Financial Secretary, Treasurer, Sunday School Superintendent, Church Clerk, Director of Christian Education, and Presidents of all other designated Adult Ministries. The leaders shall form the Joint Committee of PMBC." Article 12 provides that the pastor of PMBC is an ecclesiastical officer of the church. Finally, Article 14 of the bylaws addresses the dismissal of the pastor:

"The Pastor shall be considered for dismissal from PMBC only after the alleged charges(s) has been fully investigated and which must include the following steps: (1) The Deacons Ministry and the Joint Board must meet with the Pastor; (2) if PMBC Deacons and Joint Board find the alleged charges to be non-meritorious, no further action is taken; (3) if the Deacons Ministry and PMBC's Joint Board decide[] the alleged charges to be meritorious, a written notice containing the specifications of the charge(s) as alleged shall be given by certified mail, return receipt requested[, ] to the Pastor at least 14 days prior to a special meeting to be held for this purpose and the pastor shall be accorded an opportunity to defend himself against such charges including the right of counsel. In the event such charges are not sustained, the pastor shall resume the duties of the pastor and the church shall be responsible for the payment of reasonable counsel fees incurred by the pastor in defending himself against such allegations."

By 2012, PMBC's membership of 16 persons had fractured into 2 groups. It is alleged that the congregation had become dissatisfied with Taylor's service as pastor at PMBC and that Taylor and his close relatives had "started taking over the church" and were behaving in such a way as to have "forced other members from attending church." Taylor headed one group of eight church members, and Lenora, a church trustee, headed the other group of eight church members.

         On July 20, 2012, Lenora sent Taylor a letter by certified mail informing him of a specially called meeting to be held at PMBC on August 28, 2012. The letter requested Taylor's attendance at the meeting and indicated that the purpose of the meeting was to decide the issue of Taylor's continued service as pastor at PMBC. The letter gave no "specifications of the charge(s) alleged" against Taylor. It appears from the record that Taylor refused service of this certified letter on three occasions.

         In the meantime, a special meeting of PMBC was convened on August 5, 2012, by Taylor's eight-member group. Taylor presided over this meeting and stated that Lenora had not attended any church services since July 8, 2012, and had performed acts that prevented other members and friends from conducting religious services at PMBC. Carolyn G. Taylor, the chairman of the PMBC Board of Trustees ("the Board") and Taylor's wife, moved to seek a restraining order against Lenora to prevent her from attempting to keep Taylor and the members from entering the PMBC or engaging in any other action designed to prevent Taylor and the members present at the meeting from exercising their right to worship at PMBC.

         Also at this special meeting, Thelma, a founder and former trustee of PMBC, moved to have Lenora removed as a trustee of PMBC and to nominate Rose E. Taylor -- a sister of Taylor's and the clerk of PMBC -- as a trustee to the Board. Finally, Thelma moved those members present to approve by a vote of affirmation Taylor's continued service as the pastor of PMBC. Each of these actions was approved by a unanimous vote of those present.

         On August 28, 2012, a "mutual" council met with PMBC. The council's purpose was to serve as an advisory body for PMBC and consisted of the following representatives: Reverend Pettus L. Lockett of the Kinterbish District Baptist Association ("the Kinterbish association"); Reverend Theodis McSwain of the Gilfield District Missionary Baptist Association ("the Gilfield association"); and Reverend Jasper Irby of the Gilfield association. Taylor did not attend this meeting. Reverend Lockett expressed his "sadness" that Taylor was absent, having been afforded the opportunity to "vindicate himself of the charges forwarded by the church." The council advised PMBC to "strive to restore harmony" and suggested a seven-day restoration period. Although the council had advised PMBC to "strive to restore harmony" and suggested a restoration period, it appears from the church minutes[1] that five members of PMBC present at this meeting voted to dismiss Taylor. Taylor was informed of the action taken at the meeting and responded by telling Lenora that she had no authority to call the meeting.

         On September 12, 2012, a special meeting was held at PMBC that appears to have been attended by eight church members. The purpose of the meeting was to verify the expiration of the seven-day restoration period given Taylor at the August 28, 2012, meeting. Reverend Irby stated at this meeting that "nothing could be done to over-rule any decision made by the church" in the previous meeting held on August 28, 2012. Reverend O.L. Sealey, a representative of the Gilfield association, moved at this meeting that the decision made at the meeting on August 28, 2012, to remove Taylor as the pastor of PMBC be upheld. Lenora seconded this motion. Taylor was provided notice that his services as pastor were terminated effective September 17, 2012.

         On October 4, 2012, Taylor informed Lenora by letter that the meetings held on August 28, 2012, and September 12, 2012, were unauthorized and that they were held without following PMBC's bylaws; that the Gilfield association had no authority over PMBC and was not authorized to call a "mutual" council; that she had been removed as a trustee of PMBC on August 5, 2012; and that he did not accept the results of the unauthorized meetings of August 28, 2012, and September 12, 2012. Taylor requested that Lenora "cease and desist from acting outside the jurisdiction and the membership body of [PMBC]."

         On January 10, 2014, PMBC, Lenora, Rosie Drummond, Vernon L. Harbin, and Billy Ray (hereinafter collectively referred to as "the Ray plaintiffs") sued Taylor, Carolyn, Rose, and Thelma (hereinafter collectively referred to as "the Taylor defendants") seeking injunctive relief. The Ray plaintiffs alleged, among other things, that Taylor had behaved in such a bullish and domineering manner as the pastor of PMBC that the only regular attendees of PMBC are his close relatives; that Taylor insisted on controlling everything in the church and had created an atmosphere where others feel unwelcome; that during a church meeting Taylor was verbally abusive to Ray; that Taylor has conducted specially called meetings in violation of PMBC's bylaws; and that Taylor and the other defendants have appropriated church assets for their own use and control.

         The Ray plaintiffs sought an order from the trial court finding that Taylor's termination as the pastor of PMBC was valid and requiring the Taylor defendants to return all church documents, records, and bank accounts in their possession. The Ray plaintiffs also sought to enjoin Taylor from claiming to be the pastor at PMBC and to enjoin the Taylor defendants from "conspiring and claiming that they are the Church and controlling all aspects of the Church"; from holding themselves out as having sole and exclusive authority to act on behalf of PMBC; and from disrupting church activities and harassing church members.[2]

         On February 17, 2014, the Taylor defendants moved the trial court to dismiss the Ray plaintiffs' complaint, arguing, among other things, that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted; that the trial court lacked the jurisdiction to remove a church pastor and "to interfere with the 'spiritual' or 'ecclesiastical' affairs of any Church"; that the removal of a pastor is an ecclesiastical matter rather than a civil matter; and that the alleged removal of Taylor as the pastor of PMBC was invalid because PMBC's bylaws were not followed in removing him. The Taylor defendants supported their motion to dismiss with exhibits.

         On March 6, 2014, the Ray plaintiffs filed a response in opposition to the motion to dismiss in which they contended that they were not asking the trial court to interfere with the "spiritual" or "ecclesiastical" affairs of the church by removing Taylor as pastor of PMBC because they contended that Taylor had already been removed as the pastor of PMBC by a majority vote of the congregation. The Ray plaintiffs stated that they were requesting an order upholding Taylor's removal as the pastor of PMBC. The Ray plaintiffs alleged that "a majority of the members of [PMBC] held a valid meeting, a meeting in which [Taylor was] given proper notice to attend, and by a majority vote, voted to remove [Taylor] as pastor." Relying upon In re Galilee Baptist Church, 279 Ala. 393, 186 So.2d 102 (1966), the Ray plaintiffs argued that the trial court had jurisdiction of this matter because they were seeking an order determining that Taylor's removal as the pastor of PMBC was valid and had been accomplished in accordance with the bylaws of PMBC.

         On April 30, 2015, the Taylor defendants filed their brief in support of their motion to dismiss, to which they attached a number of exhibits. On June 8, 2015, the Ray plaintiffs filed their brief in response, supported with a number of exhibits. On December 16, 2015, the trial court heard the parties' oral arguments in support of their briefs.[3] On May 20, 2016, the trial court entered the following order, which reads, in part:

"The Court has reviewed the legal briefs submitted by the parties and has heard oral arguments from counsel.
"This Court is extremely disappointed and saddened that a matter such as this has made its way into the judicial process. Spiritual matters are best left to each particular church and its congregation to resolve. However, given the present posture of this situation, this Court is forced, however reluctantly, to make a determination of certain issues involving [PMBC].
"In arriving at a decision, the Court is relying heavily on the Alabama Supreme Court's recent opinion in Ex parte Tatum, 185 So.3d 434');">185 So.3d 434 [(Ala. 2015)]. It is this Court's opinion that Ex parte Tatum is a road map for circuit courts in Alabama when determining church disputes.
"A circuit court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to apply judicial notions of due process to church proceedings when the highest adjudicatory body of a church decides a purely ecclesiastical matter. However, the mere fact that the subject matter of a church dispute concerns an ecclesiastical or spiritual issue does not preclude a circuit court from recognizing a decision rendered by the highest adjudicatory body of a church and, based on that decision, enjoining persons from taking unauthorized actions on behalf of the church.
"In the present case, the Court concurs with the opinion in Ex parte Tatum that it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to apply notions of due process to a church proceeding to remove the pastor of that church, but the Court does have the ability to recognize that a decision made by the majority of the members of [PMBC] to remove Defendant, Charles Brookins Taylor, as the pastor was a valid decision. In affirming such action of the church, the Court can also enjoin the Defendant, Charles Brookins Taylor, from taking unauthorized actions on behalf of the church.
"In a Baptist church, the majority of the congregation is the highest adjudicatory body, unless the church bylaws provide otherwise. In a Baptist church, the majority of the members of the church control the business of the church. Each Baptist church is within itself a pure democracy; it is the right of the majority to rule; the will of the majority having been expressed; it becomes the minority to submit; church action is final. The church may remove the pastor at any appropriate time it deems necessary. Thus in the church, the highest adjudicatory body of the church with respect to removing a pastor is a majority of its members.
"It is apparent from the legal briefs and oral arguments of counsel that, even though the bylaws of [PMBC] did provide for boards to be established and persons to be appointed to those positions to make decisions for the church, no such boards existed at the time of the August 28, 2012, meeting and the bylaws did not specifically state that the majority of the congregation would not be considered the highest adjudicatory body of the church. While after July 2013, the Court recognizes that a question arose as to the active membership of [PMBC], it is apparent from the legal briefs and oral arguments of counsel that the [Ray plaintiffs] and the other members who voted to remove the Defendant, [Taylor, ] as the pastor of [PMBC] on August 28, 2012, did constitute a majority of the membership of [PMBC] and therefore their decision to remove the pastor shall be affirmed.
"The Court finds that the August 28, 2012, meeting held by the [Ray] Plaintiffs and other members of [PMBC] to remove the Defendant, [Taylor], as pastor of [PMBC] and approved on September 12, 2012, was a valid meeting held by the majority of the membership of said church and that their decision to remove the Defendant, [Taylor], as pastor is hereby affirmed;
"That the Defendant, [Taylor], is hereby removed as pastor of [PMBC] by a majority vote of the membership effective immediately and said leadership and/or control of the church shall be vested with the [Ray] Plaintiffs and other members of [PMBC]."

         On June 1, 2016, the Taylor defendants moved the trial court to alter, amend, or vacate its judgment, which motion was denied by operation of law. The ...

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