The Implications of Violating Your Bylaws

The Implications of Violating your Bylaws Despite the best intentions of your church, you learn that your church has violated its bylaws. When a bylaw violation is discovered, it is rarely the result of a casual reading of the church’s bylaws in the pastor’s study on a rainy afternoon. Instead, it typically occurs as the result of a church decision that has angered someone – or a group of people. Unhappy with the decision, someone reads the bylaws and discovers that the decision violates those bylaws.

So your church has violated your bylaws – Now what? The implications of violating your bylaws typically fall into one of three categories: what I like to call “practical” recourse, denominational recourse, or legal recourse.

Practical Recourse

A church’s violation of its bylaws may remain wholly within the local church. This gives the local church the best opportunity to address and remedy the violation. However, leadership must remain mindful that relationships likely will be strained between the church – placed on notice that it has violated its bylaws – and the member reporting the violation to the church. While the church will need to decide how to cure the violation of its bylaws – by either reconsidering the original decision or reconsidering the bylaw provision that the church has since learned that it violated – the church will also need to be prepared to address and remedy any relational differences that have occurred because of the reported violation of the bylaws.

Denominational Recourse

While the courthouse commonly does not provide recourse for a church’s violation of its bylaws, denominations may provide such an outlet. Different denominations have different systems/schemes of intra-denominational structure, with most denominations having varying levels of structured intermediate “units,” in the form of a convention, congress, synod, or other structure. An aggrieved member, elder, deacon, or church leader may seek to involve one or more of these units – operating above the local church level – to address the bylaw violation. This can result in the involvement of denominational hierarchy that places the denominational structure at odds with the local church and/or its leadership.

Legal Recourse

Finally, there are occasions, albeit rare, when a violation of the church’s bylaws can give rise to a claim for legal recourse. A church can be liable for secular acts, even those acts that are religiously motivated. The overarching question in evaluating a church member’s ability to seek relief in court is whether the bylaw violation involves an issue of religious doctrine or belief. If the violation would require a court to make a determination about the validity of a religious doctrine or belief, the court will refuse to entertain the complaint on the basis that it would violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Additionally, as a threshold matter, the church member will have to demonstrate “standing” – that is, that the church member has a legally protectable and tangible interest at stake in the alleged bylaw violation. A church member’s standing to sue must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Related Post: How to Act When Your Bylaws are Silent

This post was provided by Hallisey Law & Mediation.  You can contact Wade Hallisey at 469.238.0100 or