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Ardito v. Board of Trustees

January 25, 1995

A. PETER ARDITO, FRANCIS J. MCATARIAN, CHRISTINA CIRILLO, DR. JOHN CIRILLO, JOHN HOFBAUER, SR., JULIA BIRCHLER AND ALFRED J. BIRCHLER, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES, OUR LADY OF FATIMA CHAPEL, A NOT FOR PROFIT CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, FR. EUGENE KWIATKOWSKI, O.F.M., THOMAS F. PORTELLI, ESQ., AND CHRISTOPHER A. FERRARA, ESQ., DEFENDANTS.



K. MacKENZIE, P.J.Ch.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mackenzie

Civil Action

Opinion

K. MacKENZIE, P.J.Ch.

The court has been asked by plaintiffs to revisit its opinion and Order of December 28, 1994, in which it granted defendants' motion for summary judgment. The court has read the submissions of all the parties and has weighed the oral arguments of counsel. For the reasons stated herein, the court now denies plaintiffs' motion to set aside the December 28, 1994 Order. Accordingly, I confirm judgment in favor of the defendants.

I.

Plaintiffs instituted this action by verified complaint and order to show cause on February 10, 1994, seeking to temporarily enjoin an annual meeting of the congregation of Our Lady of Fatima Chapel at which the voting members of the Chapel were to elect a new spiritual leader. *fn1 Although the court entered the order to show cause and granted plaintiffs a hearing, it refused to temporarily enjoin the election on the understanding that the vote could be retroactively invalidated if the evidence warranted. Consequently, at the meeting, the congregation passed a referendum to enter into formal communion with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church by a vote of 134 to 110. In accordance with this mandate, the priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter were invited enter into a lease agreement with the Chapel and to serve as chaplains there with the permission of the Bishop of Paterson. Prior to that occasion, the Chapel had no affiliation with the Diocese of Paterson. Rather, the Chapel had been founded in 1975 as a Title 16 corporation with the intention that it would provide a house of worship for Roman Catholics who adhered to the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass and sacraments.

The vote at issue herein occurred on February 13, 1994, at the rescheduled annual meeting of the congregation. In accordance with the Chapel by-laws, the annual meeting had originally been scheduled to take place on the first Sunday of February, i.e., February 6, 1994. However, Reverend Eugene Kwiatkowski, O.F.M., the acting pastor of the Chapel, adjourned the meeting and rescheduled it for the following Sunday. *fn2

Plaintiffs, dissident members of the Chapel who oppose any affiliation with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, allege that the February 13 meeting was improperly called, posted, and conducted by Fr. Kwiatkowski because the priest lacked the authority, under the by-laws, to cancel the February 6 meeting and reschedule it for the following week. In particular, plaintiffs contend that paragraph 1 of Article 4 of the by-laws was not observed. *fn3 Plaintiffs argue that under the terms of Article 4, only the Board of Trustees can adjourn and reschedule an annual meeting of the congregation. Defendants, on the other hand, contend that the February 13 election was entirely valid and seek its enforcement.

II.

As noted in the court's opinion of December 28, 1994, the law would characterize Our Lady of Fatima Chapel as a congregational denomination. A congregational church is an autonomous local body, (see, e.g., Protestant Episcopal Church v. Graves, 83 N.J. 572, 577, 417 A.2d 19 (1980), cert. den. sub. nom., Moore v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 449 U.S. 1131, 67 L. Ed. 2d 119, 101 S. Ct. 954 (1981)), whereas a hierarchical church has a "common ruling convocation or ecclesiastical head." Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 110, 97 L. Ed. 120, 73 S. Ct. 143 (1952). Because the Chapel had no affiliation with the Diocese of Paterson prior to the vote of February 13, 1994, it was not part of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, the Chapel was a self-governing entity with its own by-laws. Thus, the chapel is a congregational denomination.

III.

Also as noted in the court's prior decision, the First Amendment circumscribes the authority of civil courts in disputes which concern religious organizations. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 13 Wall. 679, 728-29, 20 L. Ed. 666 (1872). With respect to a congregational church, Watson requires a civil court to enforce property decisions made by a majority of the members or the appropriate governing body Chavis v. Rowe, 93 N.J. 103, 108, 459 A.2d 674 (1983) (citing Watson, supra, 13 Wall. at 728-29).

The Supreme Court offered a second approach to the resolution of church disputes in Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658, 89 S. Ct. 601 (1969). In that case, the Court espoused the application of neutral principles of law to disputes over church property. Id. at 449. Under this approach, a court can invoke a secular interpretation of church deeds, by-laws and canons, thereby avoiding judicial entanglement in issues of religious doctrine, polity and practice. Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 603, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775, 99 S. Ct. 3020 (1979). When the application of this standard requires ...


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