On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (No. 09-cv-00015) District Judge: Honorable Stewart R. Dalzell
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chagares, Circuit Judge.
Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) January 27, 2012
Before: AMBRO, CHAGARES, and HARDIMAN, Circuit Judges.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides, in part, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." We address whether these Religion Clauses of the First Amendment insulate from civil court review the decision by a church leader to terminate an individual's membership in a church.
The dispute stems from an internal schism in the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith ("the Church"). Appellant Joseph Askew associated with the dissident faction of the Church polity, leading the Bishop and leader of the majority faction, appellee Kenneth Shelton ("Bishop Shelton"), to terminate his membership in the Church. Asserting claims on behalf of himself as a church member and derivatively on behalf of the Church, Askew alleges that Bishop Shelton and officers of the affiliated Board of Trustees misappropriated church assets and breached their fiduciary duties to the Church.
We conclude that the non-entanglement principle embedded in the Religion Clauses shields Bishop Shelton's membership decisions from civil court review. Correctly applying this principle, the District Court deferred to Bishop Shelton's declaration that he terminated Askew's membership in the Church. Because Askew's nonmember status deprives him of standing to assert claims alleging harm to the Church, we will affirm the dismissal of the case.
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith was founded by Sherrod C. Johnson in 1919. In 1947, Johnson and several church elders established The Trustees of the General Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. ("the Corporation"), a non-profit corporation set up to hold and manage the real property and assets of the Church in trust. Both the Church and the Corporation are headquartered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Church, an unincorporated entity, is governed by its Rules and Bylaws, last amended in 1961. The Bylaws establish two officers of the Church: a General Overseer and a General Secretary. The General Overseer (also known as the Bishop) serves for life, while the General Secretary must be nominated annually by the General Overseer and elected by the General Assembly of the Church. In the event of the death of the General Overseer, the General Secretary temporarily assumes his duties until the General Assembly meets to elect him or a successor as the new General Overseer. The General Assembly, a body comprised of members of the congregation, meets annually and votes on church business and governance matters. The Bylaws vest title to real and personal property of the Church in the Corporation.
The Corporation is governed by its Articles of Incorporation. The Articles make the General Overseer the President of the Corporation. They authorize the President to nominate trustees to the Corporation, who in turn must be elected annually by the General Assembly. They also restrict membership in the Corporation to the President and Board of Trustees.
S. McDowell Shelton succeeded Johnson as General Overseer in 1961. He died in 1991, prompting a crisis in succession. Three men, including Kenneth Shelton and Roddy Shelton, laid claim to the General Overseer position. Roddy Shelton was the General Secretary at the time and thus should have temporarily succeeded S. McDowell Shelton under the Bylaws. But many members of the Church disapproved of his leadership and preferred Kenneth Shelton. The faction loyal to Kenneth Shelton used threats and force to oust the faction loyal to Roddy Shelton from the Church in an acrimonious meeting held in early 1992. Both men held separate General Assemblies and were elected General Overseer by their respective followers. In the aftermath of the schism, the parties continued to battle their claim to authority over the Church and ownership of church assets in Pennsylvania courts. Over a decade ago, Pennsylvania courts concluded that Kenneth Shelton was the rightful General Overseer of the Church. Trustees of the General Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. v. Shelton, Nos. 92-1887, 94-0914, 94-3654, slip op. at 4 (Pa. Ct. Com. Pl. June 12, 2000), aff'd, Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of Apostolic Faith, Inc. v. Shelton, 773 A.2d 1290 (Table) (Pa. Commw. Ct. Apr. 10, 2001).
Askew was a member of the dissident faction loyal to Roddy Shelton. Since 1992, he has attended Roddy Shelton's church and other churches affiliated with the dissident faction. He does not accept Bishop Kenneth Shelton as the General Overseer of the Church. On multiple occasions since the schism, Bishop Shelton declared all followers of Roddy Shelton nonmembers of the Church. In August 2009, Bishop Shelton executed a sworn declaration stating that Askew and all others ...