BENDROSS v. READON No. 3D11-1526.
89 So.3d 258 (2012)
James BENDROSS, W.C. Dillard, Edwin Henderson, Lorenzo McDowell and Sidney White, Appellants, v. Rev. Phillip F. READON and Eugene Rice, Appellees.
District Court of Appeal of Florida, Third District.
February 15, 2012.
Gary Yeldell, Jacksonville, Attorney for Reverend Phillip Readon; J.R. Callahan, Attorney for Eugene Rice, for appellees.
Before CORTIÑAS, LAGOA, and EMAS, JJ.
Bible Missionary Baptist Church of Miami, Inc. (the "Corporation") was founded and incorporated as a not for profit organization under Florida Statutes chapter 617 (1973) by Reverend Cleo Albury, Jr., who served as pastor of the church and president of the Corporation from 1973 until 1999. He was replaced as pastor by Reverend Phillip F. Readon, though Rev. Albury retained his position as president until his death in 2009. In early February, 2010, Eugene Rice, a member of the board of directors of the Corporation, filed the Corporation's 2010 annual report without notice to the remaining directors. The report removed four members of the board: W.C. Dillard, Edwin Henderson, Lorenzo McDowell, and Sidney White (collectively, the "Appellants"). The report additionally introduced three new directors, and appointed Rev. Readon, who had not previously been on the board, president and registered agent of the Corporation.
Once Appellants discovered what Rev. Readon and Mr. Rice (collectively, the "Appellees") had done, protracted negotiations ensued with the hopes of resolving the dispute without resorting to litigation. When that failed, Appellants filed a complaint against Appellees alleging breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty and fraud. In May of 2011, the trial court granted the motion to dismiss the action with prejudice filed by Appellees on the grounds that "[t]he Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine bars this Court from deciding the instant dispute because doing so would necessarily and excessively entangle this Court in doctrinal and/or theological issues." We reverse.
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine emerges from the First Amendment protections afforded to religious institutions. The Supreme Court of Florida has recognized that "the First Amendment prevents courts from resolving internal church disputes that would require adjudication of questions of religious doctrine." Malicki v. Doe,
We find that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not bar this suit. Plaintiffs are not categorically prohibited from ever seeking redress from the courts solely because a religious organization is somehow involved in the dispute. "[W]hen a church-related dispute can be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without resolving religious controversy, the civil courts may adjudicate the dispute." Se. Conf. Ass'n of Seventh-Day Adventists, Inc. v. Dennis,
Religious organizations, like any other not for profit organization, are governed by the requirements of chapter 617. See § 617.0301, Fla. Stat. (2010). Unless provisions in the by-laws of a corporation expressly adopt alternative requirements to those discussed in the statute, section 617.0808 establishes the procedures to be followed in removing board members for all not for profit corporations: "[A] director may be removed from office pursuant to procedures provided in the articles of incorporation or the bylaws, which shall provide the following,
This is not an instance where the court's involvement would transgress upon the exclusive authority granted to churches under the First Amendment "to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government." Malicki, 814 So.2d at 356 (quoting Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral,
The situation before this Court is far closer to that faced by the Florida Supreme Court in Epperson v. Myers,
Because, at this stage of the proceedings, it appears that the case may be resolved by applying neutral principles of law without inquiry into religious doctrine and without requiring the court to interpret the policies or practices of the Bible Baptist Church, the abstention doctrine does not bar this case.
Reversed and remanded.
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