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Church of God in Christ, Inc. v. L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc.

Supreme Court of Tennessee, Jackson

September 21, 2017

CHURCH OF GOD IN CHRIST, INC., ET AL.
v.
L. M. HALEY MINISTRIES, INC., ET AL.

          Session Date: April 5, 2017

         Appeal by Permission from the Court of Appeals Chancery Court for Fayette County No. 15815 Martha B. Brasfield, Chancellor

          We granted this appeal to determine whether the Court of Appeals properly affirmed the trial court's decision dismissing this lawsuit involving a dispute over the right to use and control church property for lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. This doctrine derives from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and prohibits civil courts from resolving church disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice. We conclude that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply in this lawsuit. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming the trial court's dismissal is reversed. Furthermore, we conclude that the undisputed facts establish that the plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment, and we remand this matter to the trial court for any other further proceedings and orders that may be necessary to afford the plaintiffs possession and control of the disputed church real property and to address the plaintiffs' requests for an accounting and control of the disputed church personal property.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 11 Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Court of Appeals Reversed; Case Remanded

          Darrell James O'Neal, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellants, Church of God in Christ, Inc., Bishop David A. Hall, Gospel Center Temple Church of God in Christ, and Gospel Temple Church of God in Christ.

          Robert L.J. Spence, Jr., Bryan M. Meredith, and Veronica F. Coleman-Davis, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellees, L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc., Gospel Center Temple Church Moscow, Inc., Lonnie M. Haley, III, Jeremiah R. Haley, Ulysses C. Polk, Barry C. Turner, Milton Holt, Sr., and Erskine J. Murphy.

          Cornelia A. Clark, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., Sharon G. Lee, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined. Holly Kirby, J., filed a concurring opinion.

          OPINION

          CORNELIA A. CLARK, JUSTICE

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The Church of God in Christ, Incorporated ("COGIC") is a national not-for-profit religious corporation established on December 12, 1922, under the laws of Tennessee, with its principal business office located in Memphis. COGIC has adopted a hierarchical structure of governance for its member churches.[1] The COGIC constitution, which provides "for the civil and ecclesiastical structure of the church together with laws, rules, and regulations for the entire church, including [local churches]" is compiled in The Official Manual.[2] Pursuant to these governing principles, COGIC is divided into Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions, and a Jurisdictional Bishop presides over each Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction. The Official Manual declares that "[t]he Pastor of the local church shall be appointed by the Jurisdictional Bishop of the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of the Church." This provision also states: "All vacancies that occur in the pastorate of the local church shall be filled by the Jurisdictional Bishop. The supervision and management of the church shall remain with the Jurisdictional Bishop or his designee until such time as a pastor has been appointed to fill such vacancy."

         According to the allegations of the second amended complaint, Gospel Center Temple COGIC ("Temple COGIC"), located at 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee, was founded "many years ago." At the time of its founding, Temple COGIC "assumed the vows of membership with [COGIC] and declared it[s] willingness to submit to and abide by the government of [COGIC], " including The Official Manual.

          In return, COGIC issued Temple COGIC "[a] certificate of membership"[3] and assigned Temple COGIC to the Tennessee Headquarters Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction ("THEJ").

         L. M. Haley, Jr. founded Temple COGIC and served as its duly appointed pastor until his death on October 10, 2009. Thereafter the Jurisdictional Bishop for THEJ, Bishop J.O. Patterson, Jr., "declined to name a pastor and temporarily assumed the pastorship of [Temple COGIC], " as authorized by The Official Manual.[4]

         Bishop Patterson died in June 2011, and Bishop David A. Hall thereafter was appointed Jurisdictional Bishop for THEJ. Like his predecessor, Bishop Hall chose to serve as pastor of Temple COGIC rather than appoint someone else to the position. Unfortunately, not everyone at Temple COGIC was satisfied with Bishop Hall's decision, and in October 2011, those dissatisfied with the decision sought the advice of a lawyer, also an elder in COGIC, about their options. In a letter included in the record on appeal, this attorney summarized the advice he had given, explaining that the members of Temple COGIC had an "absolute right to vote to move to another [Ecclesiastical] [J]urisdiction" but cautioned that, "if they [were] to remain in COGIC[, ] they must follow the church's polity, including accepting the Bishop's appointment of Pastors." He explained that, "if they desire[ed] to fellowship with another [Ecclesiastical] [J]urisdiction [of COGIC], they should present their petition to the General Board requesting a vote of the membership."

         Thereafter, the General Secretary of COGIC received a letter advising that a majority of the members of Temple COGIC had voted to transfer to another Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction.[5] The General Secretary responded with a letter explaining that the election would not be recognized as valid because it had not been conducted in compliance with COGIC procedures, contained in The Official Manual, for obtaining a transfer to another Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction. The General Secretary provided a copy of the applicable procedures and invited the recipients of the letter to contact his office should additional information or assistance be needed. The General Secretary did not receive any additional correspondence regarding a transfer.

         However, on December 16, 2011, a corporate charter was filed with the Tennessee Secretary of State's Office creating Gospel Center Temple Church Moscow, Inc. ("Moscow Church"). The Moscow Church's corporate charter listed its business address as 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee, the same address as Temple COGIC. Neither the corporate charter nor any other document in the record on appeal indicates that the Moscow Church was organized as a member church of COGIC. Another Tennessee corporation, L. M. Haley Ministries, Incorporated ("L. M. Haley Ministries"), had been formed previously by the founding pastor of Temple COGIC and had also listed 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee, as its registered office and principal place of business. Nevertheless, according to a September 17, 2000 deed, the grantees for the real property located at this address were Temple COGIC, Ella Mary Cox, Milton E. Holt, Sr., Lonnie M. Haley, Janice Murphy, John W. Arnett, and Erskine J. Murphy, Trustees for the use and benefit of Temple COGIC [and] its assigns. Neither the Moscow Church nor L. M. Haley Ministries was listed on the deed as having any interest in the property. The September 17, 2000 deed also did not expressly list COGIC as having an interest in the property, but The Official Manual includes the following provision:

Real estate or other property may be acquired by purchase, gift[, ] devise, or otherwise, by local churches. Where real or personal property is acquired by deed, the instrument of conveyance shall contain the following clause, to wit;
The said property is held in trust for the use and benefit of the members of the Church of God in Christ with National Headquarters in the City of Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee, and subject to the Charter, Constitution, Laws and Doctrines of said Church, now in full force and effect, or as they may be hereafter amended, changed or modifies [sic] by the General Assembly of said Church.

         This same language is repeated, verbatim, in another part of The Official Manual.[6]

          Despite the language of the September 17, 2000 deed and that of The Official Manual, on December 29, 2011, Barry C. Turner, Erskine J. Murphy, and Milton Holt, Sr., "holding themselves out to be the sole Trustees of [Temple COGIC] executed and recorded a Quit Claim Deed attempting to transfer" the real property located at 16885 Highway 57, Moscow, Fayette County, Tennessee to the Moscow Church. On January 2, 2012, four days after the quit claim deed was executed, Bishop Hall attempted to hold services at Temple COGIC, but he was barred from entering the premises. A Fayette County Sheriff's Deputy allegedly called in by those associated with the Moscow Church advised Bishop Hall "that he should either leave or be arrested."

         A month later, on February 2, 2012, this lawsuit was filed. Bishop Hall filed the initial complaint, individually and on behalf of Temple COGIC. After the complaint was amended once, the defense filed a motion to dismiss. The trial court concluded that Bishop Hall may have lacked standing to file the lawsuit on his own, but it granted him permission to file a second amended complaint. The second amended complaint, from which this appeal arises, was filed on July 29, 2013, by COGIC, Bishop Hall, individually and on behalf of Temple COGIC, and Temple COGIC, by and through its duly appointed trustee, John Arnett (collectively "the Plaintiffs"). Named as defendants in the second amended complaint were: (1) L. M. Haley Ministries; (2) the Moscow Church; (3) L. M. Haley, III, (4) Jeremiah R. Haley; (5) Ulysses C. Polk; (6) Barry C. Turner; (7) Milton Holt, Sr.; and (8) Erskine J. Murphy (collectively "the Defendants").

         In the second amended complaint, the Plaintiffs alleged that the Moscow Church and L. M. Haley Ministries, by and through their directors, had "unlawfully assumed control of [Temple COGIC's] real property." As factual support for this assertion, the Plaintiffs alleged that Bishop Hall, Temple COGIC's duly appointed pastor and Jurisdictional Bishop, had been barred from entering Temple COGIC on threat of arrest by a Fayette County Sheriff's Deputy. The Plaintiffs also alleged that one of the Defendants, Erskine J. Murphy, had removed church documents from Temple COGIC, including the checkbook and financial records, and that, by doing so, had deprived Bishop Hall of access to materials needed to fulfill his responsibility to administer and supervise Temple COGIC.

         As the basis for their claim to the real property and to control of the bank accounts, records, and other personal property of Temple COGIC, the Plaintiffs pointed to the language of the September 17, 2000 deed and that of The Official Manual. The Plaintiffs asked the trial court: (1) to order the Defendants "to remove themselves from control" of Temple COGIC and "restore" Temple COGIC and its property and funds to the Plaintiffs; (2) to declare the December 29, 2011 quit claim deed to the Moscow Church null and void as a fraudulent transfer; (3) to restructure the September 17, 2000 deed to reflect that the real property is held in trust for the use and benefit of COGIC, with national headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee, and subject to the Charter, Constitution, Laws and Doctrines of COGIC, "now in full force and effect, or as they may be hereafter amended, changed or modified by the [COGIC] General Assembly"; (4) to order the Defendants to account for all income and expenditures from January 1, 2011 to the present; and (5) to issue a temporary restraining order preventing the Defendants from using Temple COGIC funds pending resolution of the lawsuit.

         In their answers to the second amended complaint, the Defendants denied that Bishop Hall was the lawful pastor of Temple COGIC.[7] The Defendants also moved to dismiss the second amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted and for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that the Plaintiffs were asking the trial court "to exercise jurisdiction over a purely ecclesiastical and religious dispute as to who shall be the church's pastor and thereby control the church's property and funds."

         On December 6, 2013, the Plaintiffs filed a memorandum of law in opposition to the Defendants' motions to dismiss.[8] The Plaintiffs reiterated the allegations of the second amended complaint and also provided a copy of a decision handed down on November 23, 2013, by an Ecclesiastical Council of COGIC. The memorandum of law stated that, in February 2013, certain members of Temple COGIC brought charges against several other members of the congregation, including some of the Defendants in this lawsuit, alleging that these members were violating COGIC polity and unlawfully exercising control over Temple COGIC property.[9] An internal COGIC investigation ensued, which culminated in a trial before the Ecclesiastical Council on November 23, 2013. Those charged were notified of the trial but did not appear. After the hearing, at which sworn complaints and testimony were presented, the Ecclesiastical Council rendered its decision, finding that the Defendants "ha[d] ignored the requests and admonitions of [COGIC officials] to follow the polity of [COGIC]"; were operating Temple COGIC in violation of the COGIC constitution and The Official Manual; had refused to acknowledge Bishop Hall, who was their duly appointed Jurisdictional Bishop and pastor; had caused Bishop Hall to be physically removed from church services at the Temple COGIC premises; had interfered with Bishop Hall's lawful attempt to manage the bank accounts of Temple COGIC and persuaded the bank not to place those accounts under his control; had unlawfully attempted to transfer ownership of Temple COGIC property; and had improperly called a vote to transfer Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions. Based on these findings, the Ecclesiastical Council found those charged guilty of certain offenses, and excommunicated nine persons from membership in COGIC and Temple COGIC, including two of the Defendants in this lawsuit-Barry C. Turner and Milton Holt, Sr. The Ecclesiastical Council ordered the reorganization of Temple COGIC under the pastoral leadership of Bishop Hall, directed that Temple COGIC's "personal property . . ., including cash, bank accounts, records and the like" be turned over to Bishop Hall, to hold in trust for Temple COGIC, and directed that Temple COGIC's real property be held in trust in accordance with The Official Manual.

         In a December 6, 2013 memorandum of law opposing the Defendants' motion to dismiss, the Plaintiffs argued that the Defendants, by refusing to comply with the November 23, 2013 Ecclesiastical Council ruling, had forced the Plaintiffs to seek civil remedies "to resolve this impasse over property rights." The Plaintiffs acknowledged the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, but they asserted that it does not apply here because this case involves a church property dispute over which civil courts have jurisdiction, not a dispute about ecclesiastical matters.

         On February 3, 2014, the Defendants renewed their motion to dismiss the second amended complaint, relying on materials previously submitted. The Defendants asserted, despite the decision of the Ecclesiastical Council, that "the gravamen of this case still requires the [c]ourt to engage in a review of ecclesiastical doctrine and determine who should pastor and manage [Temple COGIC] simply to control the church's personal and real property."

         On May 7, 2014, the Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment and alternatively asked the court "to make such findings of fact and conclusions as is proper under the premises." Defendants apparently did not respond to the motion for summary judgment, or if they did, the response is not included in the record on appeal.

         On June 24, 2014, the Plaintiffs filed a supplement to their original memorandum of law in opposition to the Defendants' motions to dismiss. The Plaintiffs adopted and incorporated by reference affidavits from: (1) Bishop Hall; (2) COGIC's General Counsel; and (3) COGIC's General Secretary, all of which had previously been submitted. In his affidavit, Bishop Hall essentially reiterated the allegations of the second amended complaint and described the Ecclesiastical Council's ruling. In his affidavit, COGIC's General Counsel stated, among other things, that Bishop Hall "was duly appointed as Jurisdictional Bishop of the Tennessee Headquarters Ecclesiastical

          Jurisdiction of [COGIC] of which [Temple COGIC] is a member church." The General Counsel also stated that, at the time of Bishop Hall's appointment, no pastor had been appointed to Temple COGIC, and therefore, Bishop Hall became the pastor of Temple COGIC upon his appointment as Jurisdictional Bishop, pursuant to The Official Manual. The General Counsel stated that "there is no ecclesiastical controversy concerning the leadership and management of [Temple COGIC]-Bishop Hall is the Pastor of [Temple COGIC] according to the COGIC Constitution." Finally, the General Secretary's affidavit stated that Bishop Hall was the duly appointed Jurisdictional Bishop for Temple COGIC's Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and that, under COGIC's constitution and polity, Bishop Hall became the pastor of Temple COGIC in November 2011, "upon being consecrated as Jurisdictional Bishop." The General Secretary also stated that the November 23, 2013 ruling of the Ecclesiastical Council had not been appealed and, as a result, had become "final and binding upon [Temple COGIC] and the Charge[d] Parties according to the COGIC Constitution."

         On February 18, 2015, the trial court dismissed the Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment without a hearing and without requiring the Defendants to respond, explaining that the Plaintiffs had failed to set out "a separate and concise statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue for trial, " as required by Rule 56.03 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. The trial court granted the Defendants' motions to dismiss the second amended complaint. In doing so, the trial court emphasized that its ruling was based on the allegations of the pleadings alone, and that it had not considered any of the other materials the parties had submitted. The trial court explained the basis for its decision to grant the motion to dismiss as follows:

The Court finds that this lawsuit deals with ecclesiastical issues. The Plaintiffs have been very careful to couch their lawsuit and prayer for relief by alleging that this lawsuit concerns property rights. However, this lawsuit is actually about control, and who makes the decision concerning the control of the church and the church funds. These are denominational and ecclesiastical issues. The Court [] does not have jurisdiction to declare the Quit Claim Deed to [the Moscow Church] void or to restructure the deed at the present time because the congregation has not withdrawn from the COGIC denomination.

         The Plaintiffs appealed. In a divided decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the second amended complaint. Church of God in Christ, Inc. et al. v. L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc. et al., No. W2015-00509-COA-R3-CV, 2016 WL 325499, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2016), perm. app. granted (Tenn. Aug. 18, 2016). On the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, the majority "decline[d] to interfere with this intra-church dispute over the creation of a trust for COGIC of [Temple COGIC's] real property, " explaining that there had been "no showing that [Temple COGIC] has in any way terminated its affiliation with COGIC." Id. at *9. The majority also affirmed dismissal of the personal property claim on the basis of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, explaining that civil courts have "no subject matter jurisdiction to declare that Bishop Hall is the lawful leader of [Temple COGIC], imbued with all attendant authority." Id. at *10. One judge dissented, arguing that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not apply in this case, because "resolution of the dispute among the parties is not dependent on the trial court's ruling on matters of conscience or religious doctrine or polity." Id. at *11 (Goldin, J., dissenting).

         The Defendants filed an application for permission to appeal pursuant to Rule 11 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. We granted the application, and in the order doing so, directed the parties to brief and argue the following issues, in addition to those raised in the Rule 11 application:

1. Whether, in light of the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, [565 U.S. 171] (2012), this Court should no longer treat the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a bar to subject matter jurisdiction, and instead should treat the doctrine as an affirmative defense which may be raised by a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Rule 12.02(6) of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.
2. If the answer to issue 1 is in the affirmative, whether the record establishes that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies, such that [the P]laintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
3. If the answer to issue 1 is in the negative, whether this Court should abandon the analytical distinction between facial and factual challenges to subject matter jurisdiction, see Redwing v. Catholic Bishop for the Diocese of Memphis, 363 S.W.3d 436, 445-46 (Tenn. 2012); and if so, whether in the absence of that analytical distinction the record establishes that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies and that the trial court, therefore, lacked subject matter jurisdiction.

Church of God in Christ, Inc. et al. v. L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc. et al., No. W2015-00509-SC-R11-CV (Tenn. Aug. 18, 2016) (order granting Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 11 application). To answer the questions presented in this appeal, we must review the principles that courts have developed and applied, albeit not always consistently, to resolve church property disputes.

          II. Analysis

         A. The Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine: Subject Matter Jurisdictional Bar or Affirmative Defense?

         The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, also commonly known as the "church autonomy doctrine, " Redwing, 363 S.W.3d at 443 n.3, precludes civil courts in this country from adjudicating "questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law" or church polity, or the internal governance of religious organizations. Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 727 (1871); see also Redwing, 363 S.W.3d at 448; Nance v. Busby, 18 S.W. 874, 881 (Tenn. 1892). This doctrine is now clearly understood as deriving from the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.[10] See Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. E.E.O.C., 565 U.S. 171, 186 (2012) [hereinafter Hosanna-Tabor]; Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in N. Am., 344 U.S. 94, 115-16 (1952). We asked the parties to address whether the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine operates as a bar to subject matter jurisdiction or is an affirmative defense. The proper characterization of this concept is important because subject matter jurisdiction refers to the power of a court to adjudicate a controversy. Word v. Metro Air Servs., Inc., 377 S.W.3d 671, 674 (Tenn. 2012). "Whether subject matter jurisdiction exists depends on the nature of the cause of action and the relief sought." Id. (citing Landers v. Jones, 872 S.W.2d 674, 675 (Tenn. 1994)). A challenge to subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and may be raised at any time. Johnson v. Hopkins, 432 S.W.3d 840, 843-44 (Tenn. 2013); In re Estate of Brown, 402 S.W.3d 193, 199 (Tenn. 2013). In contrast, "[a]n affirmative defense is one that wholly or partly avoids the cause of action asserted by the preceding pleading by new allegations that admit part or all of the cause of action, but avoids liability because of a legally sufficient excuse, justification, or other matter negating the alleged breach or wrong." Thompson, Breeding, Dunn, Creswell & Sparks v. Bowlin, 765 S.W.2d 743, 744 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1987) (quoting Lawrence A. Pivnick, Tennessee Circuit Court Practice § 12: 4 (2nd Ed. 1986)); see also Tenn. R. Civ. P. 8.03. An affirmative defense generally is deemed waived unless timely raised in an answer or responsive pleading. See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.08; Pratcher v. Methodist Healthcare Memphis Hosps., 407 S.W.3d 727, 735 (Tenn. 2013) (discussing affirmative defenses).

         We asked the parties to brief this question because, in 2012, the United States Supreme Court held that another doctrine derived from the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment-the ministerial exception-constitutes an affirmative defense, not a subject matter jurisdictional bar. Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 195 n.4. In Hosanna-Tabor, the Supreme Court explained that the ministerial exception precludes applying federal civil rights laws to a religious institution when applying those laws would interfere with a religious organization's determination of who may serve as its ministers. Id. at 188. Settling a disagreement among the lower courts, the Supreme Court held that the ministerial exception functions as an affirmative defense, not a jurisdictional bar, because civil courts have subject matter jurisdiction over claims based on federal civil rights statutes. Id. at 195 n.4. The ministerial exception does not deprive civil courts of this jurisdiction, explained the Supreme Court, but raises the question of whether the plaintiff in such a case is entitled to relief on the claim. Id.

         Notably, however, the Supreme Court did not address the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in Hosanna-Tabor. Although both concepts derive from the First Amendment, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine predates the ministerial exception by almost a century. Compare Watson, 80 U.S. at 733 (recognizing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in 1871) with Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 188 (stating that federal circuit courts of appeal had recognized the ministerial exception after passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964). The Supreme Court itself has described the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine in a manner that suggests it constitutes a subject matter jurisdictional bar, where applicable. Specifically, the Supreme Court stated that civil courts exercise "no jurisdiction" over a matter "strictly and purely ecclesiastical in its character." Watson, 80 U.S. at 733. The Supreme Court defined ecclesiastical disputes as matters concerning "theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them." Id. at 733; see also Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese for U.S. and Can. v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 713-14 (1976) (quoting Watson, 80 U.S. at 733). Likewise, this Court "strongly embraced the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" just twenty years after Watson, Redwing, 363 S.W.3d at 448-49 (quoting Nance, 18 S.W. at 879), and has applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a subject matter jurisdictional bar precluding judicial review of ecclesiastical matters, see, e.g., Mason v. Winstead, 265 S.W.2d 561, 563 (Tenn. 1954) (removal of a minister); Travers v. Abbey, 58 S.W. 247, 247-48 (Tenn. 1900) (removal of a minister); see also Redwing, 363 S.W.3d at 445 (treating the assertion of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction); Bentley v. Shanks, 348 S.W.2d 900, 903 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1960) ("[C]ourts have no ecclesiastic jurisdiction, and do not pass upon questions of faith, religion, or conscience.").

         A recent example of a Tennessee decision applying the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a subject matter jurisdictional bar is Anderson v. Watchtower Bible and Tract Soc'y of N.Y., Inc., No. M2004-01066-COA-R9-CV, 2007 WL 161035, at *1 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 19, 2007). There, expelled members of a religious organization brought a lawsuit against the religious organization and its leaders seeking money damages for their expulsion. The religious organization moved to dismiss based on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The trial court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the plaintiff's claims were "barred by the First Amendment's protection of purely religious matters from interference by secular courts." Id.

         No language in Hosanna-Tabor alters the well-established principle stated in Watson that civil courts have no jurisdiction over matters purely ecclesiastical in character. In the absence of any express language overruling Watson, and given that Hosanna-Tabor cites Watson with approval, we decline to interpret Hosanna-Tabor as abrogating Watson's characterization of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a subject matter jurisdictional bar. Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S. at 186-87.[11] We therefore hold that, until and unless the United States Supreme Court declares otherwise, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, where it applies, functions as a subject matter jurisdictional bar that precludes civil courts from adjudicating disputes that are "strictly and purely ecclesiastical" in character and which concern "theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them." Watson, 80 U.S. at 733. As such, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine may be raised at any time as a basis for dismissal of a lawsuit.

         That being said, however, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine certainly does not apply in every legal dispute involving religious organizations. As this Court explained in Redwing in refusing to dismiss the tort claims there alleged against the religious organization, "the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine does not necessarily immunize religious institutions from all claims for damages based on negligent hiring, supervision, or retention. Tennessee's courts may address these claims, as long as they can do so using neutral principles ...


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