Thursday, March 24, 2011
One does not often see the intersection of church autonomy doctrine and criminal law, but that marriage occurs in a recent New York case, People v. Afrika Owes (the decision, maybe behind a pay-wall, here) in which the Abyssinian Baptist Church wanted to put up a $50,000 bond for a defendant charged with conspiracy and criminal possession of a weapon. New York has enacted the "Religious Corporations Law," which governs a religious corporation's "temporal affairs" but not its "ecclesiastical affairs," and whose primary purpose is "to provide for an orderly method for the administration of the property and temporalities dedicated to the use of religious groups, and to preserve them from exploitation by those who might divert them from the true beneficiaries of the corporate trust."
The court here held that the posting of bond in a criminal case was a "temporal affair" and therefore subject to the RCL. Because it was within the ken of the RCL, the statute specifies that the trustees may use corporate property "for some religious, charitable, benevolent or educational object conducted by said corporation or in connection with it" but only "providing the members of the corporation at a meeting thereof shall so authorize" the use. And here, the trustees had not obtained authorization from the governing authority, the congregation -- "[i]n a Baptist church, the congregation is the ultimate governing authority[.]" The trustees violated their fiduciary obligations to administer the temporal affairs of the church by posting the bond without consulting the congregation and obtaining its consent.
From the court's concluding paragraph:
In continuing to disapprove this bail bond, this court is not substituting its judgment for that of the Church about how the Church uses its money. The Religious Corporations Law regulates the use of church property to ensure its use for the support and maintenance of the Church. Church property may be used for other purposes but only if the congregation, the ultimate governing body of a congregational church, authorizes the use of church property for some other purpose at a duly convened corporate meeting. This legally required process ensures that the trustees are, in fact, acting consistently with the wishes of the membership when expending church funds for a purpose other than the support and maintenance of the Church.