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Weare Bible Baptist Church, Inc. v. Fuller

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

December 13, 2019

WEARE BIBLE BAPTIST CHURCH, INC.
v.
CALVIN F. FULLER; WEARE BIBLE BAPTIST CHURCH
v.
LELAND QUIMBY & a.

          Argued: October 23, 2019

         Hillsborough-northern judicial district

          Upton & Hatfield, LLP, of Concord (Susan Aileen Lowry on the brief and orally), for plaintiffs Weare Bible Baptist Church and Calvin Fuller.

          Sommers Law, PLLC, of Bedford (Eric M. Sommers on the brief and orally), for defendants Evelyn Quimby, Susan Quimby, and Christopher Quimby.

          DONOVAN, J.

         The defendants, Evelyn Quimby, Susan Quimby, and Christopher Quimby, appeal orders of the Superior Court (Brown, J.) denying their motion to dismiss the Weare Bible Baptist Church's motion for contempt, finding the defendants in contempt, and imposing additional obligations upon the defendants. On appeal, the defendants argue that the trial court: (1) erred in denying their motion to dismiss because the Church's contempt motion failed to identify a clear directive of the court that the defendants violated; (2) committed an unsustainable exercise of discretion in finding the defendants in contempt in the absence of a clear directive in the underlying order; and (3) lacked subject matter jurisdiction to render its findings and rulings because doing so required the court to consider ecclesiastical matters of the Church. Because the Church's contempt motion asks the court to rule on ecclesiastical matters, we reverse the trial court's denial of the defendants' motion to dismiss and vacate and remand the trial court's additional rulings.

         I. Facts

         The following facts are taken from the trial court's orders or are otherwise supported by the record. In 1985, Leland Quimby, the patriarch of the defendants' family, became the pastor of the Church. In 2014, after Leland suffered a stroke, the defendants decided to find an interim pastor. They considered Calvin F. Fuller to fill this position and met with him to discuss his potential role at the Church. Shortly thereafter, the entire Church membership voted to invite Fuller and his wife to become members of the Church and to appoint Fuller as pastor.

         Thereafter, Fuller invited new members to join the Church, took several actions relating to the administration of the Church and its finances, amended the Church's corporate charter, and replaced the members of the corporate board. Subsequently, the defendants filed an action on behalf of the Church seeking to void the memberships of Fuller, his wife, and the new members he invited to join the Church, and the official acts Fuller took as pastor, due to an alleged failure to comply with the corporate charter.[1]

         The Church's corporate charter contains its covenant and articles of faith and governance. It first describes the Church's purpose to, inter alia, "preach[] and teach[] the Word of God, which includes the corporate worship of Almighty God," and sets forth the Church's articles of faith and covenant, which describe in detail the beliefs of the Church according to its interpretation of biblical scripture. The charter then sets forth the Church's rules pertaining to its membership and governance. It describes the Church's membership as consisting of persons who give "evidence of regeneration by personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior," have been "baptized by immersion," and "accept the doctrines, the Covenant, and the by-laws" of the charter. To become a member, a person must be admitted "by profession of faith having been previously baptized" or "by letter from another church of like faith and practice," must appear before the pastor and board of elders for "examination of qualifications and for instruction," and must be "received upon the recommendation of the Board of Elders and the vote of the Church." To become a pastor, a person must be elected by the Church membership. However, eligibility for the position requires that the person be a Church member in good standing for at least one year, unless a waiver of the one-year requirement is granted by the Advisory Board and two-thirds vote of the Church where a new member "has demonstrated an outstanding testamony [sic] and desire to serve the Lord."

         Following a bench trial, the trial court issued a final order in February 2016 (2016 order) in which it concluded that: (1) Fuller was duly elected as pastor with full authority; (2) Fuller, his wife, and the other new members of the Church were properly admitted; and (3) certain "official acts" taken by Fuller and the defendants following Fuller's appointment were invalid for failure to follow the procedures set forth in the Church's corporate charter. The trial court reached its conclusions by determining whether, based upon the evidence at trial, members of the Church complied with the Church corporate charter procedures. The trial court also considered expert testimony on Baptist church polity in determining the validity of Fuller's appointment as pastor. The 2016 order set forth only one prospective directive: "The current membership of the church shall vote to ratify or reject any and all applicable actions taken by the Quimbys and [Fuller] during this time" with adequate notice in compliance with the corporate charter.

         During service on March 27, 2016, Fuller announced that he had scheduled a meeting for April 3, 2016, to hold a vote contemplated by the 2016 order. At the April 3 meeting, Fuller led the Church members in voting on a number of issues. Throughout the meeting, Susan Quimby loudly objected and talked over Fuller. She also told other members of the Church that they would be in violation of the court's order if they participated in the vote. Despite this interference, the other members of the Church who attended the meeting cast their votes.

         The defendants engaged in other behavior following the 2016 order that exacerbated the conflict among the Church membership. Evelyn and Leland Quimby, who had been living in the Church's parsonage at the time Fuller was elected pastor, continued to reside there, which resulted in the Church's loss of its tax-exempt status with the Town of Weare. The defendants also placed stakes in the yard around the parsonage which prevented others from entering, claiming that the property belonged to them. Additionally, they continued to hold a hunter safety course at the parsonage after the Church voted to discontinue it.

         The defendants also took actions directed against other members of the Church. They signed and distributed a petition to discipline Fuller, his wife, and other members of the Church for allegedly violating the corporate charter and participating in the April 2016 meeting. The defendants then held a meeting not attended by any other member at which they voted to dismiss the members named in their petition for discipline. Christopher Quimby and his brother mailed letters to those members stating that they had been dismissed and notified the Secretary of State of these changes. They also sent a letter to Fuller "accepting" his termination as pastor and his transfer to another church where he had been working, and later sent another letter to him demanding the return of all church property. The corporate seal ...


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