Motion for Summary Judgment. The Motion by Defendant Evangelical Friends Church Southwest for Summary Judgment is DENIED.
A “party moving for summary judgment bears an initial burden of production to make a prima facie showing of the nonexistence of any triable issue of material fact . . . .” (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 850.) “A prima facie showing is one that is sufficient to support the position of the party in question.” (Id., at p. 851.)
A defendant moving for summary judgment satisfies his or her initial burden by showing that one or more elements of the cause of action cannot be established or that there is a complete defense to the cause of action. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c(p)(2).) The scope of this burden is determined by the allegations of the plaintiff’s complaint, as “the pleadings set the boundaries of the issues to be resolved at summary judgment.” (Oakland Raiders v. National Football League (2005) 131 Cal.App.4th 621, 648; FPI Development, Inc. v. Nakashima (1991) 231 Cal.App.3d 367, 381–82.) If there is a single triable issue of material fact on any cause of action, the motion for summary judgment must be denied. (See Code Civ. Proc. § 437c(c), Zavala v. Arce (1997) 58 Cal.App.4th 915, 926.)
Moving Defendant Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (“EFCSW”) contends that this court has no jurisdiction over the ecclesiastical disputes between EFCSW and Plaintiff Friends Community Church, Inc. (“FCC”).
When a church dispute concerns issues of church doctrine, membership, credentials of clergy, discipline of clergy and members, or church governance and organization, the dispute must be resolved in accordance with the internal decision-making processes of the church itself. (See Schofield v. Super. Ct. (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 154, 162; Kim v. The True Church Members of Holy Hill Church (2015) 236 Cal.App.4th 1435, 1449; Sacramento Sikh Soc. Bradshaw Temple v. Tatla (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 1224, 1234.) “Generally, civil jurisdiction is more limited with respect to hierarchical religious organizations than it is in the case of congregational or independent ones.” (Concord Christian Center v. Open Bible Standard Churches (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1396, 1409 [citing Watson v. Jones (1871) 80 U.S. 679, 722-729; Rosicrucian Fellowship v. Rosicrucian Etc. Ch. (1952) 39 Cal.2d 121, 131-133].) In fact, decisions of church tribunals on matters purely ecclesiastical are conclusive and binding on civil courts, absent fraud. (Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976) 426 U.S. 696, 712-713; New v. Kroeger (2008) 167 Cal.App.4th 800, 816; Korean United Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of the Pacific (1991) 230 Cal.App.3d 480, 497-499.) There is no “‘arbitrariness’ exception in the sense of an inquiry whether the decisions of the of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations.” (Serbian Orthodox Diocese, supra, 426 U.S. at p. 713.)
Thus, in an ecclesiastical dispute, the court must first determine: (1) whether the parties are hierarchical church entities, and whether one party is subordinate to the other; (2) the authoritative ecclesiastical entity to whose decisions on ecclesiastical issues, the court must give due deference; and (3) how that entity has resolved the material ecclesiastical issues. (Concord, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1411-1413.) The Court of Appeal in Concord Christian Center v. Open Bible Standard Churches held the trial court had properly abstained from making a determination as to propriety of national church’s revocation of the ministerial credentials of the member church’s pastor, but could apply neutral principles to determine whether a member church’s attempt to disaffiliate from national church had failed, and that the former was therefore subject to national church’s regional supervision and control.
A hierarchical church is one in which member churches are “‘organized as a body with other churches having similar faith and doctrine[, and] with a common ruling convocation or ecclesiastical head’ vested with ultimate ecclesiastical authority over the individual congregations and members of the entire organized church.” (Concord Christian Center, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th at p. 1409 [citing Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral (1952) 344 U.S. 94, 110 & fn. 15; Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. at pp. 722-723].) A congregational church, on the other hand, is defined as one “strictly independent of other ecclesiastical associations, and [one that] so far as church government is concerned, owes no fealty or obligation to any higher authority.” (Concord Christian Center, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th at p. 1409 [citing Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. at p. 722].)
Here, the undisputed facts show that FCC is a hierarchical church. EFCSW is a California non-profit religious corporation that includes about 39 member churches in California, Arizona, and Nevada, FCC is a member church of EFCSW, and EFCSW is the highest authority among its member churches. (UMF Nos. 2, 7, 16 [and evidence cited therein].)
EFCSW’s Faith and Practice document provides that EFCSW has two official governing bodies: the Representatives and the Elder Board. (Prentice Decl., Ex. 3 (“Faith & Practice”) at pp. 33-34.) Representatives “constitute the official body of [EFCSW], to consider and act upon various items of business that come before it” in the annual “business sessions,” also known as the “Representative Sessions.” (Faith & Practice, pp. 33-34.) The EFCSW Elder Board acts as the official governing body of EFCSW the other 364 days of the year outside the general session. (Faith & Practice, pp. 38-39.)
There is a disputed material fact as to whether the Elder Board’s decision to close FCC and terminate Pastor Pfeiffer was valid. “The effect of decisions made and actions taken in violation of the constitution, bylaws and rules of governance of a church entity is that such actions are void and of no effect.” (Central Coast Baptist Assn. v. First Baptist Church of Las Lomas (2007) 171 Cal.App.4th 822, 851 [citing Concord Christian, supra, 132 Cal.App.4th 1396].) Plaintiff presents evidence that the Elder Board did not have a quorum at the meeting wherein the board purportedly decided to terminate Pastor Pfeiffer and close FCC. (Cara Pfeiffer Decl. ¶¶ 11-12.) Faith & Practice provides a “quorum shall consist of half the board, but not less than five [members].” (Faith & Practice, p. 37.) Even if the Elder Board had reached a quorum, there is a disputed fact as to whether the decision to terminate Pastor Pfeiffer is valid, absent action by the Congregational Business Meeting. (See Faith & Practice, p. 60.)
ECFSW’s Request for Judicial Notice is granted. (Evid. Code, § 452, subd. (h).)
The evidentiary objections submitted were not material to the disposition of this motion. (Code Civ. Proc., § 437c, subd. (q).)
In deciding this motion, the court did not consider any evidence submitted with Defendant’s reply papers. (See Jay v. Mahaffey (2013) 218 Cal.App.4th 1522, 1538; San Diego Watercrafts, Inc. v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. (2002) 102 Cal.App.4th 308, 312.)
Motion to Bifurcate. The Motion by Defendant Evangelical Friends Church Southwest to Bifurcate Trial is GRANTED in part and DENIED without prejudice in part.
Here, conducting separate trials on jurisdiction and the remaining issues will promote judicial economy, as jurisdiction is dispositive on several of the parties’ claims and cross-claims. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1048(b); see also Foreman & Clark Corp. v. Fallon (1971) 3 Cal.3d 875, 888.) An additional phase may be appropriate before any issues may potentially be ready for a jury.
Case Management Conference. The Case Management Conference is vacated. All dates to remain.
Plaintiff to give notice of all orders.