Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Court Sides Against Pentecostal Hierarchy in Local Church Property Dispute
By Steven M. Ellis, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday ruled in favor of dissident members of a Los Angeles church who claim the Pentecostal Christian denomination with whom they affiliate stole their church and its real property amid a dispute between pastors.
Reversing a trial court’s decision, Div. Seven held the Southern Pacific Latin American District of the Assemblies of God exceeded its authority when it took over Iglesia Evangelica Latina’s board in 2005 and transferred 16 parcels of real property to itself.
The district, an intermediate body governing affiliates of the Assemblies of God in parts of California, Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona, took action after a rift developed in Iglesia Evangelica Latina’s congregation over allegations of theft by assistant pastor Juan Reyes.
Reyes contended the funds were sent to a “sister church” in Guatemala, but other members of the church’s board alerted the governing body and requested that it change the local church’s status from a general council church—which operates independently through its own board—to a district church under direct SPLAD control.
As opposed to district churches, the Assemblies of God’s constitution and bylaws grant sovereign council churches power to elect their own boards and transact all business pertaining to their lives as a local unit, including ownership of church property.
Without the votes of two of five board members—Reyes and Pastor Moises Sandoval—the church’s board agreed to the proposed change and voted to transfer 16 properties, including the church building and housing units, but congregants later elected another board including Reyes in April 2006.
Reyes and his followers allegedly took the church back from their rivals in an altercation during Sunday services in April 2006, and continued to use it despite the SPLAD’s attempt to change the locks until 2007. That year Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Allen White rejected Reyes’ challenge to the SPLAD’s actions.
On appeal, the SPLAD argued it had validly assumed control of the church’s corporate form, and that the property transfer was therefore proper, but Justice Laurie D. Zelon rebuffed the body’s contentions.
Applying the California Supreme Court’s January opinion in In re Episcopal Church Cases, 45 Cal.4th 467, that secular courts considering church property disputes must apply “neutral principles” and not entangle themselves in disputes over doctrine or infringe the free exercise of religion, Zelon explained that the SPLAD’s assumption of control was improper absent evidence the body did so in compliance with California’s Corporations Code or the church’s bylaws.
“IEL must observe certain formalities in conducting board elections…,” she wrote. “[T]he fact that Assemblies of God is a hierarchical church and SPLAD has oversight over district council churches is insufficient…to transmit the power to SPLAD to ignore IEL’s corporate form in the event of a change in IEL’s status.”
Zelon similarly concluded that the transfer of the real property was unauthorized given that the Assemblies of God’s governing documents recognized council churches’ property ownership rights, and contained express provisions regarding formalities associated with transfers of property with which the SPLAD had not complied.
“Assemblies of God’s constitution and bylaws expressly recognize that a local sovereign church, such as IEL did here, owns its property,” she wrote. “Nothing in the governing documents provides that the demotion of a sovereign church to a district council church removes this protection.”
Zelon also opined that Reyes had standing to challenge the SPLAD’s actions notwithstanding the body’s selection of governing church officers in conjunction with the conversion to a district church.
White had concluded that Reyes and the others elected with him in the April 2006 board election lacked standing once the SPLAD created a new governing structure, but Zelon said Reyes did have standing as a member of the original board because the SPLAD’s actions were invalid, returning the parties to the status quo ante under the circumstances.
Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss and Justice Frank Y. Jackson joined Zelon in her opinion.
The case is Iglesia Evangelica Latina, Inc. v. Southern Pacific Latin American District of the Assemblies of God, B203800.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company