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Dhillon v. The Garden State Sikh Association, Inc.

A-1337-02T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (Unpublished)

CORPORATIONS; NON-PROFIT—A court may intervene in a religious corporation’s non-secular election disputes, but should not make itself the final arbiter of those disputes; instead, it should leave such matters to the membership, and if the members cannot agree, appoint a special master.

A member of a religious association challenged the association’s Elections & Rules Committee’s determination that he was ineligible to be counted as a member or be an officer. The dispute involved two rival factions within the association. One faction sought to remove a rival’s candidate from the ballot for President of the association’s working committee. It claimed the candidate was not a member because membership was limited to New Jersey residents who are citizens or “immigrants.” On that basis, it claimed that because the candidate did not have a “green card,” he was ineligible. The candidate claimed that since he was in the United States legally under a working permit, he qualified as an “immigrant” for purposes of membership and holding office. The Elections and Rules Committee disagreed and expelled him from membership and prohibited him from running for office. The lower court determined that the expulsion was procedurally defective because the association’s charter and by-laws required the General Body, and not a committee, vote to expel a member. The lower court then reinstated the candidate’s membership. It set procedures for a special election for the disputed office, including a tie-breaking procedure that required both factions to return to court. The faction seeking to bar the candidate appealed, claiming that the lower court impermissibly intruded into a dispute “involving matters of ecclesiastical doctrine or policy” in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article One of the New Jersey Constitution. The Appellate Division rejected that claim, noting that the issue was not raised in the lower court. It did note, however, that the lower court did not infringe upon constitutional protections because the disputed issues involved voting and membership, which are secular principles. The lower court’s determination of these issues did not involve interpretation of religious doctrine. The Appellate Division also rejected the rival faction’s claim that the expelled member had no standing to sue, finding that he had a protectable interest in his membership that he could sue to retain. The Court also rejected the faction’s claim that the lower court interfered with the association’s right of self- governance. It found that the lower court insured proper self-governance by requiring submission of membership issues to the General Body as required by the association’s charter and not permitting a committee to usurp the powers of the members. Finally, the Court rejected the lower court’s tie-breaking procedure. It noted that, considering the animosity and continuing disputes between the two factions on many issues, the court was making itself the final arbiter of disputes, usurping the members. According to the Court, the members should decide who will be the tie-breaker, and if they cannot agree, a special master should be appointed.

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