A power struggle in a small Charlotte church started by African immigrants has been settled for now along First Amendment grounds.
In an opinion released Tuesday, the N.C. Court of Appeals said the courts cannot weigh in on the long-running dispute that has divided the Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church on Idlewild Road. To do so, the three-judge panel said, would be to violate one of the country’s legal cornerstones – the separation of church and state.
More and more, church operations have been dragged into the public legal sphere. For example, Calvary Church, a prominent south Charlotte congregation, is being sued by a group of parents who say the church school discriminated against children with disabilities or chronic health needs.
Holy Trinity’s dispute was more of a internal battle. It was founded in 1999 by Ethiopian immigrants. Over the past 10 years, the congregation has been hit by a series of disputes, with some members leaving the congregation. In February 2014, further turmoil ensued when the parish council fired its priest.
This time, though, the dissidents did not leave the church. A month after the firing, they filed suit, claiming that certain members of the parish council who had voted to fire the priest had been reelected to their seats in violation of church bylaws. The complaints also claimed that the council was excluding the critics from the church’s official membership rolls in an effort to suppress their complaints.
In December 2014, Holy Trinity’s attorney, Julian Wright of Charlotte, asked Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin to dismiss the case because it “impermissibly entangled the court in ecclesiastical matters” in violation of the First Amendment.
Ervin disagreed. On Tuesday, the three-judge panel unanimously overruled him.
The judges wrote that the accusations by the dissident Holy Trinity members “focused upon the actual governance of the church and their right as members to participate fully.” Therefore, to rule on their complaints would force the court “to interpret or weigh church doctrine,” which is not allowed under the Constitution.
Wright, of Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, said Tuesday that the ruling underscores a church’s authority to pick its leaders and decide who should be a member.
Plaintiff’s attorneys Joseph Nelson and John Holden did not respond to emails seeking comment.