Larry Alexander, James Pinkney, Edward Usher, Edward Jefferson, Glenn Jefferson, Jenny Jefferson v. David Allen, Spencer Bynes, George Alford, David Allen, Jr., Lorie Fox, and Samuel Sanders, Representing the Interest of Christ Temple Apostolic Church, Inc.,--Appeal from 295th District Court of Harris CountyAnnotate this Case
Affirmedand Memorandum Opinion filed December 13, 2005.
Fourteenth Court of Appeals
LARRY ALEXANDER, JAMES PINKNEY, EDWARD USHER, EDWARD JEFFERSON, GLENN JEFFERSON, JENNY JEFFERSON, Appellants
DAVID ALLEN, SPENCER BYNES, GEORGE ALFORD, DAVID ALLEN, JR., LORIE FOX, AND SAMUEL SANDERS, REPRESENTING THE INTEREST OF CHRIST TEMPLE APOSTOLIC CHURCH, INC., Appellees
On Appeal from the 295th District Court
Harris County, Texas
Trial Court Cause No. 04-24406
M E M O R A N D U M O P I N I O N
This appeal arises from disagreements between two factions within the governing body of Christ Temple Apostolic Church, Inc. (ACTAC@). Appellants challenge the trial court=s final judgment granting appellees= plea to the jurisdiction. We affirm.
CTAC is a hierarchical church and a Texas non-profit corporation. It belongs to the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc. (APAW@), and was incorporated in 1976. In 1984, CTAC=s board of directors unanimously elected David Allen, Sr. (AAllen@) pastor and, in 1986, adopted bylaws. Appellants are former church deacons and the church secretary. Each was a long-time board member who disapproved of Allen=s style of church management.
CTAC=s board of directors and Allen have maintained a simmering dispute for several years. In effect, Allen believes the church is a Apastor-led@ church, not a Aboard-run@ church. The board contends that, pursuant to CTAC=s bylaws and constitution, Allen is the church=s spiritual leader and cannot veto the board=s final decisions or unilaterally appoint or terminate directors without the board=s approval. In 2001, Allen attempted to rewrite church bylaws as part of a Atransition of transitions@ for the church, but the board would not approve the change. In 2003, Allen attempted to appoint six new board members at a special meeting whom the directors (including appellants) opposed. These appointees began attending meetings while the CTAC directors voiced their disapproval. Allen informed one director at a board meeting that he could participate only as an Aemeritus,@ without voting rights. At later meetings, Allen made comments such as Ayou cannot vote down God=s will@ and, as pastor, he Ahas some rights, which [the board] do[es] not understand.@
The ongoing disagreements culminated when Allen unilaterally removed Edward Usher, Jenny Jefferson, Glenn Jefferson and Edward Jefferson from the board, appointing new members, changing the church=s locks, and attempting to change the authorized signers on CTAC=s bank accounts. After learning of the governance problems, CTAC=s bank filed an action in interpleader to place church property into the court registry. Appellants requested the trial court enjoin Allen from running the church without board approval and from excluding them from church activities. Appellees filed, inter alia, a plea to the jurisdiction which the trial court ultimately granted.
The sole issue on appeal is whether the trial court properly granted appellees= plea to the jurisdiction. Appellants argue the conflict is purely secular; namely, whether Allen=s Awillful and illegal exercise of control@ over CTAC=s finances and administration is proper. This dispute, however, is not about propertyCno one disputes CTAC owns the property held in the court registry. This dispute concerns who should run the church; that is, who comprises the official board of directors, and how the church should be governed.
A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea seeking to defeat a plaintiff=s claims regardless of their merit by challenging a court=s jurisdiction to hear the subject matter of the dispute. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000); Lacy v. Bassett, 132 S.W.3d 119, 122 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2004, no pet.). The trial court looks to the plaintiff=s petition and accepts its allegations as true when deciding a plea to the jurisdiction, but may also consider evidence relevant to resolving jurisdictional issues. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 555. To prevail, the defense must show that, even if all allegations in the plaintiff=s pleadings are true, there remains an incurable jurisdictional defect on the face of the pleadings that deprives the trial court of subject matter jurisdiction. Brenham Hous. Auth. v. Davies, 158 S.W.3d 53, 56 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2005, no pet.). We review the trial court=s ruling de novo. Tex. Dep=t of Parks and Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004).
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides ACongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.@ U.S. Const. amends. I, XIV. Therefore, the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from resolving church disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice. Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602 (1979). A civil court may adopt an approach, including neutral principles of law, for resolving church disputes involving no consideration of doctrine, polity, or practice. Hawkins v. Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 69 S.W.3d 756, 759 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2002, no pet.) (citing Jones, 443 U.S. at 604). Under the Aneutral principles of law@ approach, a court may interpret church documents such as the church=s constitution and bylaws to determine purely secular matters without relying on religious precepts to resolve the conflict. Lacy, 132 S.W.3d at 123; see also Hawkins, 69 S.W.3d at 759 (holding court may interpret church documents in purely secular terms but declining to resolve power struggle within church without any governing church documents to review); Dean v. Alford, 994 S.W.2d 392, 395 (Tex. App.CFort Worth 1999, no pet.) (noting civil courts have jurisdiction to review matters involving civil, contract, or property rights even though matters stem from church controversy). If the matter cannot be resolved without delving into a religious controversy, the court must defer to the resolution of the doctrinal issue by an authoritative ecclesiastical body. Jones, 443 U.S. at 604.
CTAC=s bylaws state that the official board Ashall consist of the Pastor, the Deacons, Trustees, and the Church Secretary.@ Because the bylaws do not explicitly establish the process for selecting board members, appellants argue directors must be elected by the board according to Texas law, which provides:
If the method of election, designation, or appointment [of directors] is not provided in the articles of incorporation or by laws, the directors, other than the initial directors, shall be elected by the board of directors.
Tex. Rev. Civ. Stat. Ann. art. 1396B2.15B (Vernon 2003). CTAC=s bylaws, however, provide for the selection of certain officers who, by their status, then become board members. Because the bylaws are not silent on this point, the statutory provision is superfluous. See Green v. Westgate Apostolic Church, 808 S.W.2d 547, 552 (Tex. App.CAustin 1991, writ denied) (explaining court must defer to bylaws in conflict between general procedure of Texas Non-Profit Corporation Act and specific procedures in church bylaws).
Under CTAC=s bylaws, deacons are appointed by the pastor and hold office Auntil he resigns, or his life, or because of sin disqualifies him, and therefore is requested to resign by the Official Board.@ The bylaws reveal that deacons hold a high position in the church, and must meet very high scriptural qualifications. Although the bylaws do not specifically state how the church secretary is selected, they do provide that church officers include deacons, trustees and secretaries, and that A[a]ll offices and vacancies shall be filled through ELECTION, except in those instances where the Pastor finds it necessary to appoint.@ The bylaws also state that the church secretary and three trustees of the board=s choosing shall be authorized to sign church checks, and that the trustees are to be the legal designees of CTAC, to serve as signatories or to represent CTAC in all Aprudential@ matters. While it appears Allen could properly appoint a deacon or officer, it appears he could not remove deacons without a request from the board. However, as deacons are also officers under CTAC=s bylaws, they can be removed from their office as follows:
Any member who fails to support the church through tithes and offerings, or who fails to show a cooperative attitude toward the Pastor, and the church program shall not be eligible to hold any office, or take part in voting on issues brought to the congregation for passing.
(Emphasis added). There is no provision establishing who determines whether a member is uncooperative with the pastor and church program, although similar bylaw sections provide that members may be Asilenced, disfellowshipped, or otherwise disciplined at the spiritual discretion of the Pastor or the Pastor and deacon board,@ and that such action is appropriate when the member is in sin, does not comply with church teachings, or is disobedient to the pastor and church rules. This lends insight to the underlying problem within this church: Must members, including directors, be obedient to Allen in all decisions or else be punished? We cannot answer this question; it must be decided by an appropriate ecclesiastical body. See Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 709 (1976) (quoting Md. & Va. Eldership of the Church of God. v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 U.S. 367, 369 (1970) (Brennan, J. concurring)) (explaining a civil court cannot probe into the allocation of power within a hierarchical church to decide governing church polity without violating the First Amendment in the same manner as determining religious doctrine). Even if wrongs exist in an ecclesiastical setting and church administration is inadequate to provide a remedy, the preservation of the free exercise of religion is so important a principle that it overshadows the inequities that may result from its liberal application. Hawkins, 69 S.W.3d at 759 n.3.
We hold the subject matter of this dispute is ecclesiastical and, therefore, beyond the trial court=s subject matter jurisdiction. We affirm the trial court=s judgment.
/s/ J. Harvey Hudson
Judgment rendered and Memorandum Opinion filed December 13, 2005.
Panel consists of Justices Hudson, Frost, and Seymore.
 Larry Alexander, James Pinkney, Edward Usher, Edward Jefferson, Glenn Jefferson, and Jenny Jefferson are Aappellants.@ AAppellees@ are David Allen, Spencer Bynes, George Alford, David Allen, Jr., Lorie Fox, and Samuel Sanders, representing the interest of Christ Temple Apostolic Church, Inc.
 Allen claimed his action was Aan act of love,@ and that he wanted to relieve stress for the Aemeritussed@ board member, who stated at the same meeting that he wanted to remain on the board.
 Appellees filed an affidavit from Bishop William Ellis stating that Allen=s removal and appointment of board members was done with Ellis= blessing. Ellis concludes his affidavit by ordering the money deposited in the court registry be immediately released to CTAC Aunder the supervision and control@ of Allen, the CTAC board, and Ellis. At the time he made this affidavit, Ellis was under indictment for multiple counts of tax fraud including the conversion of church property to his personal use.
 Although APrudential@ is not defined in CTAC=s bylaws, the PAW Organizational Manual uses the term to refer to non ecclesiastical matters.
 Allen did not remove Larry Alexander and James Pinkney from the board. Appellees claim Alexander is currently a Adeacon in question@ because he stopped participating in board affairs when Allen removed the other appellants, and that Pinkney resigned shortly after Allen terminated the appellant board members. Regardless of whether these appellants were removed by Allen or resigned, Allen=s attempt to remove both Pinkney and Alexander as authorized signers on church accounts show his intent to strip them of their trustee/officer status at CTAC.