Thursday, September 17, 2009
C.A. Rejects Church’s Attempt to Leave Denomination
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal yesterday rejected a San Francisco church’s attempt to leave the Reformed Church of America rather than submit to closure over dwindling attendance.
Noting the hierarchical structure of Presbyterian churches, Div. Four held the Miraloma Community Church could not change governing documents to terminate affiliation where its bylaws confirmed the superiority of the denomination’s constitution and forbade amendment without written consent.
Miraloma attempted to leave the denomination in 2007 after being notified by its classis—a higher entity within the denomination that oversaw it—that local control was being superseded and interim trustees appointed due to “long term decline in participation and membership.”
The number of members at Miraloma declined between 1991 and 2006 from 84 to 20—five fewer than needed for a quorum in general membership meetings under church bylaws—and average attendance dropped more than 50 percent over nine years to 48 in 2006.
However, members of Miraloma’s consistory, the local church’s governing body, declined to relinquish power as required under the Book of Church Order of the Reformed Church, which is the oldest continuous evangelical Protestant denomination in the United States.
Miraloma’s bylaws confirmed the church was subject to and governed by the constitution of the denomination, and forbade amending or modifying this provision “in any manner” absent the written consent of the entity within the denominational hierarchy that oversaw the church.
Nevertheless, Miraloma’s consistory amended its articles of incorporation and bylaws to delete any reference to the Reformed Church. Consistory members also withdrew over $430,000 from the church’s Reformed Church-affiliated account and transferred the balance to another account.
The classis initiated litigation and San Francisco Superior Court Judge Peter J. Busch, applying neutral principles of law, determined that Miraloma Church was a subordinate member church in the Reformed Church of America hierarchy and thus bound by that body’s rules, canons and constitution.
The trial court also determined that the purported amendments to the articles of incorporation and bylaws were ineffective and invalid because Miraloma lacked the power to take such actions to terminate its affiliation with the parent church without the prior written consent of the classis.
Busch then ruled that the classis was entitled to supersede the consistory and had the exclusive right to control and direct the affairs and property of Miraloma through the trustees it appointed. He issued an injunction preventing local members from interfering with the classis’s control, exercising dominion over church affairs or property, or transferring any church property.
On appeal, Miraloma’s congregants professed their right under state corporations law to amend the church’s governing documents and control its affairs, but Justice Timothy A. Reardon—examining the governing documents of Miraloma and the parent church, as well as Miraloma’s course of conduct in accepting and submitting itself to the authority of the Reformed Church of America—concluded that Miraloma was a subordinate member of the denomination.
Reardon also noted that the classis had taken action to supersede Miraloma’s consistory before the consistory attempted to amend its governing documents, and opined that the disaffiliation attempt was ineffective and that the oversight entity appointed by the classis superseded the consistory.
“The bylaws state unequivocally that Miraloma Church is a member of the RCA, at all times subject to and governed by its Constitution, and agrees that this overriding provision cannot be amended or modified in any manner without the prior written consent of the Classis.”
Reardon did not disagree “that as a general matter, articles take precedent over bylaws,” but he said the court was not restrained to look only at California corporations law.
Citing the Court of Appeal’s 2008 opinion in New v. Kroeger 167 Cal.App.4th 800—which quoted the California Supreme Court’s 1897 opinion in Wheelock v. First Presb. Church 119 Cal. 477—he wrote:
“[R]eligious corporations are merely ‘permitted as a convenience to assist in the conduct of the temporalities of the church. Notwithstanding incorporation the ecclesiastical body is still all important. The corporation is a subordinate factor in the life and purposes of the church proper.’ ”
Presiding Justice Ignazio J. Ruvolo and Justice Patricia K. Sepulveda joined Reardon in his opinion.
The case is Classis of Central California v. Miraloma Community Church, 09 S.O.S. 5595.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company