Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine – Mandamus


Ex parte The Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, et al., [Ms. SC-2023-0385, Apr. 12, 2024] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2024). The Court (Cook, J.; Bryan and Mitchell, JJ., and McCool, Special Justice, concur; Parker, C.J., concurs in part and concurs in the result; Sellers, J., concurs in the result; Edwards, Special Justice, concurs in the result; Shaw, Wise, Mendheim, and Stewart, JJ., recuse) denies a mandamus petition filed by the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, Inc. (“the AWFC”) and General Council on Finance and Administration of the United Methodist Church d/b/a The United Methodist Church (“the GCFA”) challenging the Houston Circuit Court’s denial of their motion to dismiss a declaratory judgment action filed by Harvest Church-Dothan (“Harvest”). Harvest sought a declaration that “the AWFC and the GCFA lack any legally cognizable interest in real or personal property held by Harvest (“the local church property”) as well as injunctive relief preventing the AWFC and the GCFA from interfering with Harvest’s use, ownership, or control of the local church property.” Ms. *2.

The Court reiterates “[i]t is undisputed that the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibit civil courts from adjudicating ecclesiastical issues. See Taylor v. Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, 242 So. 3d 979, 986 (Ala. 2017); Murphy v. Green, 794 So. 2d 325, 330 (Ala. 2000). However, this Court has repeatedly ‘recognized the right and duty of civil courts to exercise jurisdiction to protect the temporalities of the church, such as where civil rights or rights of property are involved.’ Williams v. Jones, 258 Ala. 59, 61, 61 So. 2d 101, 102 (1952).” Ms. *16.

In denying the petition, the Court notes that the burden for obtaining mandamus relief is a heavy one and that “the AWFC and the GCFA’s petition, however, contains only general and conclusory allegations that Harvest ‘is seeking a judicial declaration absolving [it] from violating church law,’” Ms. *24. The Court rejects the petition challenging subject matter jurisdiction because “Harvest’s claim, on the face of the complaint, pertains solely to the ownership and control of the local church property – an issue that civil courts generally can resolve by applying ‘neutral principles of law.’” Ms. *26.

Related documents