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Solid Rock Baptist Church v. Carlton

January 31, 2002


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, General Equity Part, Essex County, Docket Nos. C-266-98 and C-313-98.

Before Judges Pressler, Ciancia and Parrillo.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parrillo, J.A.D.


Argued January 8, 2002

This case involves an intrachurch dispute over eligibility for nomination to elective office in a religious organization. The intrafaith conflict is actually rooted in a deeper doctrinal schism leading to a challenge by a breakaway congregational faction for control of church governance and administration. Plaintiff Solid Rock Baptist Church (Solid Rock) appeals the "eligibility" determination of the chancery court – allowing floor nominations without preliminary recommendations from and prequalification by the nominating committee – as violative of church process and procedure and as an unwarranted judicial intrusion into matters of church doctrine and polity. By democratizing the nominating process, plaintiff contends the court below fundamentally and impermissibly reordered church structure, transforming a congregational church with an internal governing body into a church entirely controlled by its membership. Defendant Rudy Carlton, the ousted pastor "recalled" as a result of the court-monitored elections, and his intervenor- supporters counter that the chancery judge properly enforced the clear and express terms of church by-laws that, they claim, provide for floor nominations without pre-screening and prequalification by the nominating committee.

The essential facts are not in dispute. Solid Rock was incorporated in 1980 as a religious corporation pursuant to N.J.S.A. 16:1-1 to -47. In 1981, it purchased property in Irvington upon which its church is located and from where services are conducted.

Solid Rock, like other Baptist churches, is congregational. See Baugh v. Thomas, 56 N.J. 203 (1970); Moorman v. Goodman, 59 N.J. Super. 181 (App. Div. 1960). Unlike hierarchical churches wherein the local church is "an integral and subordinate part of the general church and subject to its authority," Protestant Episcopal Church v. Graves, 83 N.J. 572, 577 (1980), cert. denied sub nom. Moore v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 449 U.S. 1131, 101 S. Ct. 954, 67 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1981), Solid Rock is a local autonomous body where church authority and control over church property rests completely in the local congregation and its elected officers. The present dispute focuses on the allocation of that authority as between the congregation's membership and its elected officials.

The constitution of Solid Rock, consistent with congregational organizations, vests governing power in "its own sovereign body . . . independent of any governmental, legislative laws, executive and judicial courts." In addition, Solid Rock enacted by-laws that detail, among other things, church governance and administration. Thus, Article VI establishes three bodies to govern the affairs of the church: an executive board, a board of trustees, and a board of deacons. The executive board consists of the pastor, the board of trustees, and the board of deacons; it meets monthly and discusses all matters of the church, spiritual and financial. The trustee board consists of nine to eleven members elected annually and holds in trust all property belonging to the church, and designates the bank where the funds of the church shall be deposited. The deacon board assists the pastor in his spiritual work and consists of deacons appointed by a "free vote of the church, after recommendation by the pastor and deacons who possess the qualifications as recorded in Timothy 3:8-13." In addition, there is an advisory council, consisting of the elected officers of the church, the chairs of all standing committees, and the presidents of all auxiliary organizations. The council is authorized to review and amend all agenda items before presentation to the church. Other officers include a treasurer, a financial secretary, and a clerk.

Article IX of the by-laws provides that election of church officers is to be held during annual meetings of the church in the third week of November. Section 3 of Article IX, the provision at the center of the controversy, prescribes the process for nominating persons for church office. The advisory council appoints a nominating committee who prepares a list of members qualified to hold the various church offices, interviews the candidates to ascertain their willingness to serve, nominates one or more persons from the list for each office, and reports the nominees to the congregation. In addition, any member present at the annual meeting and qualified to vote has the privilege of nominating ". . . any eligible person for any office not so nominated." (Emphasis added).*fn1 Article IX also prescribes voter qualifications and provides that election is by majority vote.

The pastor is an ex-officio member of all boards and committees of the church and its auxiliary organizations. According to Article VI, Section 2 of the by-laws, when there is a vacancy, the advisory council selects a representative pulpit committee of the executive board to take the necessary steps to hire a pastor. When a suitable person is found, the committee recommends that person to the congregation for consideration at a vote at a regularly called church business meeting. The pastor may be terminated for cause as stipulated in the contract, the church covenant, and the by-laws.

Carlton was hired as pastor on September 11, 1989, and entered into a Pastor Agreement obligating him to be cooperative, act in agreement with the deacons, remain in accord with the executive board, abide by the church constitution and by-laws, and espouse Baptist doctrines. He is the focal point of the present dispute over rightful occupancy of Solid Rock's pastorship. The genesis of the ecclesiastical conflict between Carlton and the executive board may be traced to 1994 when Carlton began efforts to implement a "full gospel" ministry at Solid Rock, a doctrinal teaching apparently at odds with church theology extant before his arrival on the scene. Despite the executive board's disapproval, in 1997 and 1998 Carlton took several steps to advance the full gospel ministry at Solid Rock, including bringing a full gospel bishop to the church to instruct the executive board on the ideology of full gospel, taking church members to a full gospel Baptist conference, petitioning the deacon board for spiritual and financial support for the full gospel ministry, and accepting the position of district overseer for Newark and its vicinity on behalf of the full gospel ministry.

Based on the recommendation of the deacon board, the executive board, on September 21, 1998, voted to call on Carlton to honor all aspects of his pastor agreement and, if he could not, to inform him that steps would be taken to remove him from office. In addition, the executive board voted to forbid Carlton from introducing any full gospel teachings at the church's worship services. Carlton, apparently, agreed to abide by these recommendations. However, at Sunday services on September 27, 1998, Carlton attacked the executive board and told the congregation that "I am going to do, what I have to do." On October 5, 1998, the executive board and the advisory council voted to terminate Carlton as pastor of Solid Rock.

Legal action ensued. On October 8, 1998, plaintiff filed a complaint and order to show cause (C-266-98) seeking to permanently enjoin Carlton from appearing on church property. The next day, October 9, 1998, the chancery judge denied preliminary injunctive relief because he was not convinced that all members of the advisory council were notified of the October 5, 1998 meeting at which Carlton was terminated. Consequently, plaintiff noticed all members of the executive board and advisory council of a special meeting on October 30, 1998, which was canceled when supporters of Carlton packed the church basement and refused to leave. The meeting to consider Carlton's removal was rescheduled for November 10, 1998 and was held on that date after the chancery judge's November 9, 1998 order that granted plaintiff's interim application for injunctive relief preventing interference with the meeting. At that meeting, in accordance with church procedure, the executive board and advisory council voted to terminate Carlton.

Evidently on account of the dissension, the executive board padlocked church doors and suspended church services. As a result, Carlton's supporters held an outdoor meeting on November 15, 1998, at which time they approved the following resolutions: that Carlton remain pastor of the church; that the church's executive board and advisory council be abolished; that the church's existing by-laws be abolished; and that a five- person committee, appointed by Carlton, prepare new by-laws.

Carlton's supporters also instituted legal action in the name of the "Congregation of Solid Rock Baptist Church." On November 17, 1998, they (intervenors) filed a verified complaint (C-313-98) and order to show cause seeking both prohibitory injunctive relief against plaintiff's interference with their control of, and access to, the church and mandatory injunctive relief that would compel plaintiff to deliver to them all business records of the church. They also moved to intervene in plaintiff's pending lawsuit (C-266-98). On December 21, 1998, the chancery judge ordered that, among other things, the padlocks be removed from the church; that Carlton not appear on church property and not participate in church services; and that the annual church meeting for 1998 be conducted in accordance with church by-laws no later than January 17, 1999.

On January 5, 1999, the chancery judge granted intervenors' motion to intervene, under R. 4:33-2, but denied their application for emergent relief to enjoin the executive and advisory boards because he found the vote at the November 15, 1998, meeting conducted outside the church to be improper. At that time, he also indicated an intent to appoint a monitor to oversee the election of church officers, to be conducted at the annual meeting. Significantly, for present purposes, the chancery judge interpreted Section 3 of Article IX of the by-laws as allowing floor nominations from the membership and, therefore, the executive board and advisory council did not have ecclesiastical authority to exclusively determine eligibility of nominees for church office.

Consistent with his stated intent, on January 8, 1999, the chancery judge appointed Jay Benenson, an attorney, as moderator to assist the court in resolving the underlying dispute between the parties, to supervise and oversee the annual meeting election, and to resolve issues of church membership, voter qualification, election notice, and ...

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