OAKLEY PARK MISSIONARY CHURCH V. MICH DIST MISSIONARY CHURCH
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STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF OAKLEY PARK
August 7, 2003
Oakland Circuit Court
LC No. 00-021044-CH
MICHIGAN DISTRICT MISSIONARY
Before: Markey, P.J., and Smolenski and Meter, JJ.
Plaintiff appeals by right from the circuit court’s opinion and order granting summary
disposition to defendant in this case involving a takeover of the Oakley Park Missionary Church
by defendant Michigan District Missionary Church. We affirm.
We review a trial court's grant of summary disposition de novo. General Motors Corp v
Dep’t of Treasury, 466 Mich 231, 236; 644 NW2d 734 (2002). In this case, the trial court
asserted that defendant brought its motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(8)
(failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted) and MCR 2.116(C)(10) (except as to
damages, there is no genuine issue with regard to any material fact and the moving party is
entitled to partial or full judgment as a matter of law).1 However, the court did not specify on
which court rule it relied in granting defendant’s motion. Nevertheless, because it relied on
matters outside the pleadings, we will treat the motion as granted under MCR 2.116(C)(10).
Driver v Hanley (After Remand), 226 Mich App 558, 562; 575 NW2d 31 (1997).
A motion under MCR 2.116(C)(10) tests the factual support for a claim. Smith v Globe
Life Ins Co, 460 Mich 446, 454; 597 NW2d 28 (1999). The moving party must initially support
its position by affidavits, depositions, admissions, or other documentary evidence. Id. at 455.
“‘The burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine issue of disputed fact
In moving for summary disposition, defendant also raised an issue under MCR 2.116(C)(4),
which concerns the lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The trial court ruled that it did in fact
have subject matter jurisdiction over the instant case, and no party disputes this ruling on appeal.
exists.’” Id., quoting Quinto v Cross & Peters Co, 451 Mich 358, 362; 547 NW2d 314 (1996).
If the nonmoving party would bear the burden of proof at trial, that party may not merely rely on
the allegations or denials in the pleadings but must set forth specific facts demonstrating the
existence of a genuine issue of material fact. Smith, supra at 455. The trial court must view the
affidavits and other documentary evidence submitted by the parties in the light most favorable to
the nonmoving party. Id. at 454. If the opposing party fails to establish the existence of a
material factual dispute, summary disposition is appropriate. Id. at 455.
Plaintiff first argues that the trial court erred in finding, as a matter of law, that the
Missionary Church is a hierarchical church requiring the trial court to accord deference to the
highest ecclesiastical body within the denomination. Although conceding that the Missionary
Church has hierarchal authority with regard to spiritual or doctrinal matters, plaintiff argues that
the denomination is not hierarchal concerning temporal, or lay, matters, including the exercise of
authority over church property. Essentially, plaintiff disagrees that the district church may force
the sale of the local church’s property. We find no basis for appellate relief.
The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” US Const, Am I. These
First Amendment protections are extended to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.
Smith v Calvary Christian Church, 462 Mich 679, 684 n 4; 614 NW2d 590 (2000), citing
Cantwell v Connecticut, 310 US 296, 303; 60 S Ct 900; 84 L Ed 1213 (1940). The First
Amendment essentially “requires that civil courts defer to the resolution of issues of religious
doctrine or polity by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization.” Jones v Wolf, 443
US 595, 602; 99 S Ct 3020; 61 L Ed 2d 775 (1979). Property disputes among ecclesiastical
entities, or factions thereof, that do not involve doctrine or polity, however, may be decided by
civil courts on other bases consistent with the First Amendment, including “neutral principles of
law.” Id. Even though courts have jurisdiction to resolve property disputes among religious
entities and a state has a legitimate interest in seeing that such disputes are peacefully resolved,
the First Amendment “‘severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving
church property disputes,’” id., quoting Presbyterian Church v Hull Church, 393 US 440, 449;
89 S Ct 601; 21 L Ed 2d 658 (1969).
Although the Jones case indicated that church property disputes may be decided
according to “neutral principles of law,”2 this Court in Bennison v Sharp, 121 Mich App 705,
721-724; 329 NW2d 466 (1982), essentially indicated that such an approach is disfavored in
Michigan and that a “theory of hierarchy” represents the preferred approach.3 Under this
A court employing the “neutral principles of law” test uses “the same principles of law as
would be applied to nonreligious organizations and therefore will not declare an implied trust
based solely on deference to the authority and rules of the denominational hierarchy.” Calvary
Presbyterian Church v Presbytery of Lake Huron of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA,
148 Mich App 105, 110 n 4; 384 NW2d 92 (1986).
The Bennison Court did indicate, however, that the “neutral principles of law” test might be
appropriate if “it appears from the church constitution, canons or rules, or from some other
source, that an express trust exists in favor of one or the other of the contending parties . . . .”
Bennison, supra at 724. There is no indication of an express trust in the instant case.
hierarchical approach, if “a religious organization is but a subordinate part of a general church in
which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a more or less complete power of control,”
then the higher authorities within the church are entitled to control the property. See id. at 720;
see also Calvary Presbyterian Church v Presbytery of Lake Huron of the United Presbyterian
Church in the USA, 148 Mich App 105, 108 n 1; 384 NW2d 92 (1986). In Calvary Presbyterian,
supra at 112-113, this Court followed Bennison and concluded that the higher authority in a
hierarchical church has the power to control church real estate.
The pertinent question then for the instant case is whether the church in question is
hierarchical, “with a central governing body which has regularly acted within its powers, or
whether it is organized in the looser ‘congregational’ structure, with all governing powers and
property ownership remaining in the individual churches.” Id. at 108 n 1.
The facts demonstrate that the church in question is indeed hierarchical. First, plaintiff
concedes that the Missionary Church has hierarchal authority in spiritual matters but contends
that the hierarchal authority does not extend to property matters. Bennison and Calvary
Presbyterian, however, allowed for no such distinction. Moreover, the local church’s 1959
articles of incorporation provide that the members would “worship and labor together according
to the discipline, rules and usages of the United Missionary Church . . . .”
Also, the Missionary Church’s 1999 constitution clearly states that local churches are
subject to the discipline of higher church authorities. The constitution indicates that the highest
supervisory, legislative, judiciary, and policy-making powers reside in the general conference.
General oversight of the entire work of the denomination resides in the president elected by the
general conference. The constitution also establishes a general board consisting of the general
officers, the district superintendents, representatives of the districts elected by the district
conferences, and the president of Bethel College. The general board is “the final arbitrator in all
appeals related to due process referred to it.” District conferences are established as an
intermediate level of government but must function in accordance with the authority delegated by
the constitution and the general conference. The business of each district between conferences is
confided to an executive board, and if membership in a local church “falls below 15 baptized
adult members (16 years or older), supervision and governance of that church shall revert to the
district executive board.” Article XIV of the constitution provides for an appeal of any entity
of the Missionary Church to a higher body and includes “the right of the body hearing the
appeal to endorse or overturn a previous ruling.” Thus, an appeal may be taken from a
decision of the local church board or the district superintendent and commenced at the district
board, and the district board may be appealed to the executive committee of the general board,
and from there, to the general board, the final arbitrator of all appeals instituted within the
denomination. This constitution clearly evidences a hierarchal structure.
Plaintiff points to the denomination’s church-building promotional material to argue that
the local church was independent with respect to property. However, that material confirms that
when a local church and its members join the denomination, that act constitutes “a voluntary
submission to the counsel, guidance and authority given to district and denominational leaders.”
The election of district and denominational leaders by the clergy and representatives of the
member local churches does not subvert the hierarchal nature of the denomination’s polity,
Calvary Presbyterian, supra at 113, and such voluntary submission to the authority of the
ecclesiastical hierarchy clearly militates in favor of abstention. Id. at 112.
Plaintiff’s argument that the 1969 merger of the United Missionary Church with the
Missionary Church Association changed the hierarchal structure of the successor church is
similarly without merit.4 Indeed, we cannot conclude that the change in constitutional language
resulting from the merger and emphasized by plaintiff on appeal serves to counteract the clear
legal implications of Bennison and Calvary Presbyterian – i.e., that higher church bodies
exercise authority over church property in hierarchal denominations.
Because Oakley Park Missionary Church “is but a subordinate part of a general church in
which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a more or less complete power of control,”
Bennison, supra at 720, it is a member of a hierarchal ecclesiastical body, and thus courts must
defer to the decision of defendant, the higher denominational authority. Id. at 720; see also
Calvary Presbyterian Church, supra at 113. The trial court correctly granted summary
disposition to defendant.
Next, plaintiff argues that the trial court should have denied relief to defendant under the
doctrine of unclean hands. Although plaintiff did not raise this issue below, because equity
actions are reviewed de novo, and because the doctrine of unclean hands protects the integrity of
the court, the issue need not be specifically preserved for appeal and may even be raised sua
sponte by an appellate court. Stachnik v Winkel, 394 Mich 375, 382-383; 230 NW2d 529 (1975).
Plaintiff’s argument fails, however, because defendant was not seeking equitable relief but rather
asserting its legal rights under the First Amendment. See Rose v National Auction Group, 466
Mich 453, 468; 646 NW2d 455 (2002) (holding the defendant’s entitlement to its real estate
commission could not be barred by the doctrine because its claim was based in law rather than
equity), and Rzadkowolski v Pefley, 237 Mich App 405, 409; 603 NW2d 646 (1999) (holding the
equitable defense of unclean hands may not be asserted as a defense to the legal obligation to pay
Next, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in granting summary disposition to
defendant because even if the rule of compulsory deference to ecclesiastical decisions would
normally apply, material issues of fact existed concerning plaintiff’s allegations of fraud and
collusion. We disagree.
In Hull Church, supra at 447, the Supreme Court noted that “marginal civil court review”
of ecclesiastical decisions might be appropriate in some situations. The Court quoted Justice
Brandeis in Gonzalez v Archbishop, 280 US 1, 16; 50 S Ct 5; 74 L Ed 131 (1929): “‘In the
absence of fraud, collusion, or arbitrariness, the decisions of the proper church tribunals on
matters purely ecclesiastical, although affecting civil rights, are accepted in litigation before the
secular courts as
conclusive . . . .’” Hull Church, supra at 447. The Court, however, did not
Plaintiff points to a book excerpt in support of its argument, but we do not consider this excerpt
because it is not located in the lower court record. We are strictly limited to the existing trial
court record. Sherman v Sea Ray Boats, Inc, 251 Mich App 41, 56; 649 NW2d 783 (2002). At
any rate, the excerpt would not affect our ruling.
discuss the limits of this “marginal civil court review.” Id. at 450 n 7. In Serbian Orthodox
Diocese v Milivojevich, 426 US 696, 712; 96 S Ct 2372; 49 L Ed 2d 151 (1976), the Supreme
Court pointed out that it had never given concrete content to nor applied the “exception” to
required deference to hierarchal ecclesiastic decisions because of “fraud, collusion, or
arbitrariness.” Although closing the door on any claimed exception based on “arbitrariness,” the
court left open the question of review of ecclesiastical decisions on a showing of bad faith for a
secular purpose. The Court stated:
We have concluded that whether or not there is room for “marginal civil court
review” under the narrow rubrics of “fraud” or “collusion” when church tribunals
act in bad faith for secular purposes, no “arbitrariness” exception in the sense of
an inquiry whether the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a
hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations is consistent with
the constitutional mandate that civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of
the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on
matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or
law. [Id. at 713 (footnote omitted).]
Plaintiff’s argument that the “fraud” or “collusion” exception to ecclesiastical abstention
applies in this case fails. The Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1997) defines
“collusion” as “a conspiracy for fraudulent purposes.” Collusion implies the existence of fraud.
See Black v Goodwin, Loomis & Britton, Inc, 239 Conn 144, 163; 681 A2d 293 (1996), and
Dickerman v Northern Trust Co, 176 US 181, 190; 20 S Ct 311; 44 L Ed 423 (1900). Fraud
requires that the defendant have knowingly or recklessly made a material, false representation,
with the intent of inducing the plaintiff’s reliance thereon, and that the plaintiff did in fact rely on
the representation to its detriment. Hord v Environmental Research Inst (After Remand), 463
Mich 399, 404; 617 NW2d 543 (2000). Thus, there can be no fraud without a false
representation. Id. at 410; Alibri v Detroit/Wayne Co Stadium Authority, 254 Mich App 545,
564; 658 NW2d 167 (2002).
Plaintiff’s argument that Oakley Park Missionary Church’s pastor met with defendant to
discuss the future of the local church after his retirement, and even recommended that defendant
close the local church, does not establish fraud or collusion. Likewise, plaintiff’s argument that
the pastor (the chairman of the local church board), the local church board’s vice-chairman, and
their spouses were informed of defendant’s decision to assume control of the local church before
other congregation members also fails to establish fraudulent or collusive activity upon which
plaintiff or its individual members relied to their detriment. Further, plaintiff’s allegation that
defendant failed to disclose that it intended to assume control of the local church and the property
at issue cannot establish fraud because a fraudulent representation must relate to a past or
existing fact. Forge v Smith, 458 Mich 198, 212; 580 NW2d 876 (1998). Thus, the allegations
of plaintiff, viewed in a light most favorable to plaintiff, simply fail to establish that defendant
made a material, false representation, or that any of the complained-of actions were evidence of a
conspiracy to deprive plaintiff or any of its members of their lawful rights. In short, even if fraud
or collusion is an exception to the deference accorded the decisions of higher ecclesiastical
bodies in a hierarchal church, the record fails to raise a disputed question of fact on fraud or
In addition to lack of evidence of fraud or collusion, there is no suggestion that defendant
was pursuing a secular purpose. The essence of the dispute in this case is whether the property at
issue should continue being used to support a local congregation with dwindling members or be
sold, with the proceeds to be used for other church purposes. The trial court properly granted
defendant summary disposition because to attempt an inquiry into the process by which this
ecclesiastical decision was made, or whether it was right or wrong, would infringe the command
of the First Amendment to avoid entanglement in religious affairs. Internal church
reorganization is “a matter of internal church government, an issue at the core of ecclesiastical
affairs . . . .” Serbian Orthodox Diocese, supra at 721.
In summary, the facts in this case, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiff, reveal
that defendant made an ecclesiastic decision authorized by the denomination’s constitution, and
plaintiff disagreed. However, rather than pursue an appeal available within the denomination,
plaintiff sought to invoke the trial court’s jurisdiction. Because plaintiff produced no evidence of
fraud or collusion, the First Amendment required the trial court to grant defendant summary
Last, plaintiff argues that the trial court erred by not addressing its claim that MCL
458.521 et seq., dealing with the incorporation of the Missionary Church, violates the
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. We disagree.
Statutes are presumed to be constitutional unless unconstitutionality is clearly apparent.
Tolksdorf v Griffith, 464 Mich 1, 5; 626 NW2d 163 (2001); McDougall v Schanz, 461 Mich 15,
24; 597 NW2d 148 (1999). Here, the statute is not clearly unconstitutional and, indeed, this
Court rejected a similar claim in Bennison, supra at 725. In addition, appellate courts should
avoid deciding constitutional issues when it is possible to resolve a case on other grounds.
People v Riley, 465 Mich 442, 447; 636 NW2d 514 (2001); Trent v Suburban Mobility Authority
for Regional Transportation, 252 Mich App 247, 252; 651 NW2d 171 (2002). Here, it was
unnecessary for the trial court to rely on the incorporation statute in order to correctly conclude
that the Missionary Church is a hierarchal ecclesiastical body and, therefore, that the First
Amendment commanded deference to the higher church body’s decision. The trial court
properly declined to address the issue. Riley, supra at 447; Trent, supra at 252.
/s/ Jane E. Markey
/s/ Michael R. Smolenski
/s/ Patrick M. Meter