DURST v. GRANT

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Duane P. DURST et al., as Acting Trustees of Bethel Assembly Of God, Massena, a New York Religious Corporation, et al., Appellants, v. Joseph J. GRANT et al., Respondents.

Decided: February 23, 2012

Before: PETERS, J.P., LAHTINEN, KAVANAGH, STEIN and GARRY, JJ. Rollinson Law Firm, Syracuse (David C. Rollinson of counsel), for appellants. Lekki, Hill, Duprey & Bhatt, P.C., Canton (Matthew P. Duprey of counsel), for respondents.

Appeal from an order of the Supreme Court (Demarest, J.), entered December 2, 2010 in St. Lawrence County, upon a decision of the court in favor of defendants.

The essence of the current dispute is whether plaintiffs or defendants are the rightful trustees and thus entitled to control the property of the Bethel Assembly of God, Massena church (hereinafter Bethel) located in St. Lawrence County. Bethel was incorporated under Religious Corporations Law article 10 in 1979 and reincorporated under Religious Corporations Law article 20 in 1997. In the structure of the Assemblies of God denomination, the primary authority is the General Council of the Assemblies of God, and under it are various geographically defined districts including, as relevant here, the New York District of the Assemblies of God. Local churches are designated as either District affiliated or General Council affiliated. General Council churches have a sovereign right of self-government, whereas District churches are subject to supervision by the District.

In 2005, congregants of Bethel requested that plaintiff Duane P. Durst, as Superintendent of the New York District, intervene in a dispute with the local pastor, who was eventually removed. During the intervention process, Durst reportedly discovered that Bethel had not conducted regular business meetings, did not have a proper method for determining membership and had individuals acting as trustees whose terms had expired. As a result, the District executive presbytery voted to appoint an acting board of trustees for Bethel consisting of Durst, two other pastors with District level positions and the pastor that the District had placed at Bethel (hereinafter collectively referred to as plaintiffs). Defendants, who claimed to be the rightful board of trustees of Bethel, refused to recognize plaintiffs as the board of trustees and maintained control of Bethel's property by changing the locks to the building.

Plaintiffs commenced this action seeking, among other things, control of Bethel's property and enjoining defendants from purporting to be the trustees of Bethel. Defendants answered and counterclaimed for various relief, including enjoining plaintiffs from controlling the property of Bethel. Eventually, the parties stipulated to waive a trial and have Supreme Court decide the case based on certain agreed facts as well as submitted papers. The stipulated facts included that Bethel was a District affiliated church. Supreme Court nevertheless held in its decision that Bethel was a General Council affiliated church and, as such, that defendants were the proper board of trustees and entitled to custody and control of Bethel's real and personal property. Plaintiffs appeal.

Courts proceed with caution when faced with internal disputes of churches since “ ‘[r]eligious bodies are to be left free to decide church matters for themselves, uninhibited by State interference,’ save for matters that can be resolved through the application of ‘neutral principles of law’ “ (Blaudziunas v. Egan, 18 NY3d 275, 280 [2011], quoting First Presbyt. Church of Schenectady v. United Presbyt. Church in U.S. of Am., 62 N.Y.2d 110, 116–117, 120 [1984], cert denied 469 U.S. 1037 [1984]; see Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 599–601 [1979] ). Here, the parties simplified and narrowed the issues by stipulating to certain facts and seeking a determination based upon submitted papers. Stipulations are favored and, so long as public policy is not violated, “parties to a civil dispute are free to chart their own litigation course and, in so doing, they may stipulate away statutory, and even constitutional rights” (Matter of Mallinckrodt Med. v. Assessor of Town of Argyle, 292 A.D.2d 721, 722 [2002] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; accord Mitchell v. New York Hosp., 61 N.Y.2d 208, 214 [1984] ).

There is merit to plaintiffs' argument that Supreme Court erred in finding Bethel to be a General Council affiliated church. The parties stipulated that Bethel was a District affiliated church. This stipulation in no way implicated a violation of public policy and, in fact, is supported by affidavits in the record from Durst, as well as George Wood, the General Secretary of the General Council of the Assemblies of God.

Significantly, the parties further stipulated that, as a District affiliated assembly, Bethel “at all relevant times, pursuant to the Constitution and By–Laws of the General Council of the Assemblies of God and the New York District of the Assemblies of God, ․ is and was under the direct administrative control of the New York District” (emphasis added). By acknowledging that they are subject to the direct administrative control of the District, defendants are essentially conceding a dispositive issue. As set forth by Durst and Wood, the District bylaws provided authorization for the action taken here with respect to a District affiliated church. The bylaws stated that the District officiary would be represented on the board of trustees of a District affiliated church and the degree of supervision of that church rested within the discretion of the District officiary. The District officiary was the executive presbytery, which authorized and took the disputed action based in part on the determination that Bethel lacked a valid membership roster and had inadequate records to determine the election or terms of the local trustees.

Defendants contend that, notwithstanding their admission that Bethel was under the direct administrative control of the District, plaintiffs' action ran afoul of Religious Corporations Law article 20. This contention was included in the stipulation as the primary disputed legal issue to be addressed by Supreme Court. Initially, we note that, the issue of the District's administrative control of Bethel within the church hierarchical structure having been conceded, attempts to diminish that control on the basis of a state statute implicate a potential constitutional issue (see Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am., 344 U.S. 94, 120–121 [1952]; see also Hosanna–Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Empl. Opportunity Commn., 565 U.S. ––––, ––––, 132 S Ct 694, 704–705 [2012] ). In any event, the statutes do not compel the conclusion urged by defendants. Religious Corporations Law §§ 432, 433, and 434 clearly establish significant autonomy in local Assembly of God churches. These sections do not specifically address the distinction within the denomination between General Council affiliated churches and District affiliated churches. However, Religious Corporations Law § 426(1) mandates that local churches are also subject to the constitution and bylaws of the General Council and District. It is undisputed that those governing documents set forth the separate status of General Council affiliated and District affiliated churches and provide that a District affiliated church does not have the same level of autonomy as a General Council affiliated church. Reading the statutes together, section 426 serves as a limitation for District affiliated churches-such as Bethel-on the broad autonomy otherwise granted in Religious Corporations Law §§ 432, 433 and 434.1 Hence, we are unpersuaded that Religious Corporations Law article 20 proscribes the action taken by plaintiffs.

We emphasize that this is a narrow decision that is circumscribed by the parties' stipulation to have the case decided upon submitted papers and agreed facts. Based upon such proof, plaintiffs have established that they were entitled to act as the board of trustees for Bethel.

ORDERED that the order is reversed, on the law, without costs, and plaintiffs are granted possession and control of the real and personal property of the Bethel Assembly of God, Massena.

FOOTNOTES

1.  The key language of Religious Corporations Law § 434 regarding autonomy is virtually mirrored in the bylaws of the General Council, except that those bylaws (Article VI, Section 4[a] ) make clear that such autonomy is applicable to General Council affiliated churches. Hence, reading section 434 together with such bylaws (which Bethel accepted as required by Religious Corporations Law § 426) reflects that District affiliated churches are not granted broad autonomy.

LAHTINEN, J.

PETERS, J.P., KAVANAGH, STEIN and GARRY, JJ., concur.

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