Ad Hoc v. Reiss / Schmuki v. Our Lady of the Sun – 2/23/2010

March 2, 2010

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds That, Under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine, Courts Lack Jurisdiction to Resolve Disputes That Require an Inquiry Into Church Doctrine or Belief and that the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Applies Equally to Congregational and Hierarchical Churches.

Our Lady of the Sun Catholic Church, Inc. (“OLS”) is an independent church organized outside the structure of the Diocese of Phoenix. It was organized to conduct the Tridentine Latin Mass and promote the traditional doctrine, rites, and liturgy of the Roman Catholic faith. After Father Francis LeBlanc, the original founder and priest of OLS passed away, the OLS board of directors elected Father Paul Andrade to replace him. One director and a member of the congregation brought a derivative suit against OLS and against current and former OLS board members, alleging that the board had failed to select Father Andrade in accordance with OLS’s articles of incorporation, which required that OLS’s priest must have been ordained according to pre-1968 Roman Catholic rites. Their suit also involved two claims involving a dispute over the disposition of some of Father LeBlanc’s property. The superior court dismissed the claims regarding the improper hiring of Father Andrade on grounds of standing and lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine; the court dismissed the claims regarding Father LeBlanc’s property because the superior court was not the right forum for the claims. A related suit was also filed by the Ad Hoc Committee of Parishioners of Our Lady of the Sun Catholic Church (the “Committee”), an unincorporated association of members of OLS. The Committee alleged that Father Andrade had later been improperly suspended by the OLS board, and that the board had improperly used OLS funds. The superior court dismissed this complaint on the issue of standing.

The Arizona Appeals Court affirmed the dismissal of both actions. The Appeals Court held that, because of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, the superior court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over the claims from the first complaint alleging that Father Andrade was improperly hired and the claims from the second complaint alleging that he was improperly suspended. Under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, courts lack jurisdiction over claims which involve ecclesiastical disputes which require an “inquiry into church doctrine or belief.” The Court held that, contrary to the appellants’ argument, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies equally to disputes involving hierarchical churches and congregational churches like OLS. Additionally, secular courts will not involve themselves in disputes related to “hiring, firing, discipline, or administration of clergy.” Because the dispute over the hiring of Father Andrade would require a court to determine whether Father Andrade had been ordained according to pre-1968 Roman Catholic rites and because the second dispute would involve a dispute involving a priest’s employment relationship with his church, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied and the superior court had no jurisdiction. Because the Committee did not allege conversion in its claims regarding the board’s improper use of OLS funds, and because the Committee did not seek a return of the funds to OLS, the Court affirmed the dismissal of these claims on First Amendment grounds. The First Amendment prohibited resolution of the Committee’s claims because it would require the court to determine which uses of the funds were in compliance with the purposes of OLS in conducting church business. The Court held that the claims regarding the disposition of Father LeBlanc’s property were properly dismissed under the doctrine of abatement because there was already a parallel probate proceeding regarding the property in question.

Judge Barker authored the opinion; Judges Norris and Swann concurred.