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Christ Apostolic Church of America, Inc. v. PNC Bank

A-6142-03T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2006) (Unpublished)

CHURCHES—A court may decide whether a local church is under the rule of a related national church even if the court couldn’t adjudicate a dispute between them if the local church were found to be governed by the umbrella organization.

Two bank accounts opened in the name of a New Jersey church were frozen by a bank. A national church claimed that the New Jersey church was a local chapter within the national church’s hierarchy. Thus, it asserted ownership of the two bank accounts. The New Jersey church asserted that the accounts belong to it, and alleged various causes of action arising from the accounts having been frozen.

The New Jersey church requested a preliminary injunction, and requested dismissal of a previously entered temporary restraining order which dismissed the complaint and directed the parties to pursue an intrachurch arbitration procedure set forth in the national church’s bylaws. The lower court denied the request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed the complaint. The local church appealed.

Despite the ostensibly complex nature of the dispute, the Appellate Division framed the critical issue as being only the need to decide which church held possessory rights to the bank accounts, an entirely factual question that focused on when the New Jersey church first became active and which of two particular bylaws it first adopted. Because of the factual disputes, the Appellate Division agreed with the lower court that the New Jersey church’s preliminary injunctive relief could not be granted as the local church could not establish a likelihood of success. However, the Appellate Division did not agree with the lower court’s dismissal of the complaint. Factual disputes cannot be resolved in the context of conflicting certifications. The Court explained that if the New Jersey church indeed began its active religious endeavor under the national bylaws, then the lower court’s conclusion that judicial interference in the property concerns of the parties should give way to the intrachurch arbitration provision in the bylaws would be unassailable. But such factual resolution could only be made after a plenary hearing. Therefore, the Appellate Division reversed the dismissal of the complaint.


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