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Hopewell Baptist Church of Newark v. Gary

Decided: June 22, 1970.

HOPEWELL BAPTIST CHURCH OF NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, ETC., PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CYRUS GARY, ET AL., ETC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Sullivan, Carton and Halpern. Halpern, J.A.D. (dissenting).

Per Curiam

Plaintiff church brought this declaratory judgment action in the Chancery Division to determine the validity of a membership vote to sell its present church structure to the Newark Housing Authority and to purchase with the sum realized another church property. Defendants, who are certain named officials of the church, individually and as representatives of the class of those church members voting against the proposed sale and purchase, appeal from the judgment of the Chancery Division declaring the vote to have been valid.

Defendants challenge the findings and conclusions of the trial judge that proper notice was given to the members of the church of the meeting at which the crucial vote was taken and the determination that minors were properly permitted to vote at that meeting.

It was undisputed that it was announced in the official church bulletin for three weeks beginning October 25, 1968 that there would be a special meeting of all members of the church after the Sunday church service on November 10 to vote on the issue of the sale of the church and the purchase of the other building. Nor was it disputed that the church clerk, during the Sunday church services following each of

the church bulletin publications, read to the congregation the list of announcements in the bulletin, including that pertaining to the November 10 meeting. It was also undisputed that these bulletins were distributed to each member before Sunday service and additional copies made available in the vestibule.

The controversy, so far as notice was concerned, dealt with whether one of these bulletins was posted on the bulletin board in the church vestibule during the period from October 27 to November 10. The evidence on this issue was in sharp dispute. Plaintiff produced eminent witnesses who testified to such posting. Equally eminent members denied that such notice was placed on the bulletin board or that they had seen the posted notice. The trial judge, although recognizing the impressive testimony on both sides in this conflict of testimony, found that the persuasive weight lay in favor of the contention that the leaflet containing the notice was posted. Our examination of the record satisfies us that there was substantial evidence in the record to support this finding. That the trial judge found the scales tipped only slightly in favor of plaintiff does not affect that conclusion.

The other factual issue resolved in favor of plaintiff's contention concerned the right of the minors present in the church to vote. The final count on the election was 136 in favor of the proposal and 104 opposed. Defendants argue that a new election should be ordered because a number of minors present were improperly permitted to vote. It seems to be settled by customary church practice in the Baptist Church that all members can vote on any church matter, whether or not they are under age, unless there is a local congregation rule or definite custom to the contrary. Randolph v. Mt. Zion Baptist Church , 139 N.J. Eq. 605 (Ch. 1947). The trial judge resolved the conflicting evidence on this factual issue by finding that there was no local rule or custom against minors voting on such church matters as long as they were members of the church. There appears to be no dispute that those who voted were actually admitted to membership under

the rules of the church and were on the membership rolls. Here again, the issue to be resolved was one of credibility and we find substantial credible evidence in the record to support the judge's determination that the membership's authorizing the challenged sale and purchase by the trustees of plaintiff church was proper.

Under the circumstances, we find no basis for intruding into the internal affairs of the church by interfering with the voting process adopted by the membership and traditionally used in the past. Such interference would be particularly unwarranted in view of the trial judge's further comment that even if certain minors cast votes improperly, these votes were not sufficient to change the result. Additionally, the proofs were insufficient to demonstrate that any other minors cast votes which would have affected the result.

Our dissenting colleague suggests that all votes of duly enrolled members of the church who have not attained the age of 21 years must be invalid because of the public policy prohibiting persons under that age from making conveyances of real property. This argument dictating that the 21-year-old age limitation be applied uniformly to all real estate transactions regardless of the parties involved overlooks the competing public policy, witnessed by a long-established legislative scheme (Title 16), of permitting voluntary religious associations wide latitude in governing their affairs, both spiritual and temporal. The statutory format guiding Baptist Church procedures indicates that the Legislature, the governmental branch best equipped to discern and enunciate public policy, has refrained from injecting a 21-year-old age limitation into that church's affairs, including those involving real estate transactions.

N.J.S.A. 16:2-11 mandates that Baptist churches be regulated by the general provisions governing religious societies (N.J.S.A. 16:1-1 et seq.) only where the special provisions of N.J.S.A. 16:2-1 et seq. are not controlling. N.J.S.A. 16:2-1 authorizes a "majority vote ...


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