Appeals Court rescinds Mt. Zion Baptist ruling

COVINGTON -- The Georgia Court of Appeals has vacated a Newton County Superior Court ruling that returned ownership of historic Mount Zion Baptist Church to its members and sent the case back to the lower court.

The Appeals Court found that the local court had not definitively determined that the plaintiffs in the case represented a majority of the church membership, which then called into question whether they had standing to bring the lawsuit.

The Oxford church, founded in the mid-1800s, has been embroiled in litigation since August 2010, when the pastor of the church and 33 members filed suit after two church officers conveyed the church property and assets to the nonprofit God's Hope Builders Inc. of Conyers. Church pastor Chris Allen and members of the church learned of the conveyance only after arriving for worship one Sunday and finding the doors locked and no trespassing signs on the property.

Clayton Dial, his daughter Angela Ballard and God's Hope Builders were named as defendants in the case. At the time the suit was filed, Dial was the sole deacon of the church, and Ballard had served in several church officer positions, including financial secretary/treasurer and clerk. The church bylaws provide that the "property and business of the corporation shall be managed by its Board of Directors (also referred to as its Deacon Body.)"

Dial testified at trial in Newton County that he gave away the church property because he feared Pastor Allen was taking steps to move the church away from its Southern Baptist heritage toward an Independent Baptist doctrine. According to court documents, membership at Mount Zion had dwindled over the years and in 2010 was down to about a dozen regular attendees. Dial and Ballard were in contact with Allen, an Independent Baptist minister, and Dial invited him to preach at Mount Zion in early February 2010. Allen was asked to return for several weeks, and in March 2010 Dial asked Allen to become the church's full-time pastor.

Church membership subsequently grew to the point that by July 2010 the congregation had reached 50 or 60 regular attendees. Many of these people became members of the church by going before the congregation, professing their faith and expressing their wish to become a member. According to court records, the congregation, including Dial, voted to welcome them into membership.

However, on July 4, 2010, Dial announced that he was freezing membership until a special church meeting could be held the next week. At that meeting, he and Ballard contended that individuals who had joined the church since March had not been properly admitted. Many of the new members became upset, according to court documents, and the meeting was aborted. About a month later, Dial gave the church property and assets to God's Hope Builders.

Appeals Court Judge Stephen Dillard, writing for the court, found that the trial court had insufficient evidence to determine the "threshold issue of whether the plaintiffs represented a majority of the church" and therefore had standing to bring the lawsuit.

Dillard wrote that courts are precluded from deciding questions of theology, church discipline or doctrine, but that the courts do have jurisdiction in civil disputes over church property.

"In fact, our Supreme Court has acknowledged that in disputes involving congregational churches, courts of equity will take jurisdiction over disputes involving churches 'when property rights are involved and when the suit is brought on behalf of a majority of the congregation.'"

Dillard found that the lower court erred in its interpretation of the church's bylaws, outlining what constitutes a member, particularly as they relate to baptism. Dillard wrote that the lower court apparently interpreted the bylaws to state that "baptism is not a prerequisite to full membership, but is instead only a formality that can be demonstrated at a later time and has little to no bearing on the plaintiffs' argument that they currently have standing to contest this action."

Dillard wrote that the lower court's interpretation "essentially renders the church's bylaws' phrase 'after baptism' meaningless. Thus, the trial court erred in relying on that construction of the bylaws to determine that the plaintiffs were currently members and constituted a majority of the church."

The Appeals Court ruling orders the lower court to "definitively determine" whether the plaintiffs are members of the church according to church bylaws and whether the plaintiffs constitute a majority of the church's total membership.