Dreier, Shebell and Stern. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.
Plaintiffs appeal from the dismissal of their complaint by the Chancery Division. Plaintiffs, with the exception of Reverend Edward B. Hardwick, who was defendant's former minister, are the Pastor, Raul A. Ruiz, and members of a Spanish-speaking congregation which is either affiliated with (as claimed by plaintiffs) or a part of (as defendants claim) defendant, First Baptist Church of Perth Amboy. Plaintiffs claim that they have been wrongfully expelled as members of the defendant church, while defendant asserts that plaintiffs have been rightfully denied membership in accordance with the tenets of its church.
The history of defendant's relationship with the Hispanic community commences in 1970 when the First Baptist Church started a "mission" to the Hispanic community of Perth Amboy. The "mission" included the creation of a Hispanic congregation within the church and the commencement of worship services in Spanish at the church. As the Spanish-speaking congregation gradually gained members, it began to use the church facilities for activities in addition to the regular Sunday worship services. By April 1979, 21 members of the Hispanic congregation were listed on the membership roll of the First Baptist Church. Plaintiffs claim that there were and are additional such members who inadvertently were not carried on the rolls. Defendant contends, however, that its former pastor, Reverend Hardwick, merely directed the clerk of the church to enter the individuals as members, and neglected to comply with the by-laws of the church requiring that membership first be passed upon by the deacons of the church and then placed before the membership for a vote. There appears to be no question that the by-laws do so provide, but plaintiffs contend
that this provision had long fallen into disuse, and, in fact, has not been applied to many of defendant's English speaking members.
Defendant additionally asserts that in April, 1979 the Hispanic congregation formed its own separate Baptist Church, The Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana, and that upon the formation of this church, the 21 members of the Hispanic congregation were deleted from defendant's rolls and noted as having transferred to the newly-formed church. Plaintiffs dispute this allegation. They contend that despite an earlier abortive attempt to form a new church, that process never came to fruition, and that for the years following the attempt they have been active members in good standing of defendant church and remain so to the present time. In fact, two of their number have served as defendant's trustees. Finally, plaintiffs claim that at a special business meeting of defendant on June 12, 1983 all the Hispanic members present were asked to leave the room at which time the English-speaking members "declared the Hispanic members to be non-members." A few months later defendant gave the Spanish congregation 30-days notice of eviction.
At oral argument we were informed that the parties have achieved a compromise in that they now share the use of the facilities, but defendant still maintains that plaintiffs are non-members of the church. Additionally, defendant has recently, by a vote of its then-recognized members, merged with another church, thereby augmenting its present membership.*fn1
This case has spanned the tenures of four Chancery judges, and each has attempted to resolve the issues by accommodating
the needs of both sides. The original complaint listed the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, Inc. and the Raritan Cluster of the American Baptist Church in New Jersey as defendants and requested the additional relief of having plaintiffs submit the issue of their membership to these entities "for final and binding resolution." Since defendant denied the authority of these organizations, this relief was denied and the complaint dismissed as to them.*fn2
One attempt to resolve this impasse was to have plaintiffs apply anew for membership in the church, have the church set forth reasons for any denial of membership in writing and report the results to the court, with plaintiffs and others of similar standing given leave to use the church premises for worship pending resolution of the case. Most of the plaintiffs submitted such applications and one by one were in the process of being examined by the deacons as to their theological views. When the process became attenuated, it was agreed that the applications themselves could be reviewed without personal examinations. Yet plaintiffs disavowed this process and determined to rest upon their position that they were already members of the church and need not reapply for membership. By then the case had been dismissed without prejudice pursuant to a Stipulation and Order of Dismissal with the understanding that either side could move to restore the matter if their differences had not been settled by April 1, 1986. One day prior to this deadline, plaintiffs filed a notice of motion to restore the case and both sides again filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
The trial judge based his dismissal on two grounds: first, that there was no case or controversy before the court; and, second, that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, since the case turned on a question of religious ...