1. A majority of the members of a church who adhere to its organization and doctrines represents the church. Code, 22-406. Though civil courts are reluctant to interpose in questions affecting the temporalities of a church (Code, 22-408), they will entertain, on behalf of a majority of the members of the church, having a congregational form of government, who adhere to the church organization and doctrines, a petition seeking to restrain former members, who have been expelled from the church, from interfering with the management of the church and trespassing upon the church property. Bouldin v. Alexander, 82 U. S. 131 (21 L. ed. 69); Tucker v. Paulk, 148 Ga. 228 (96 S. E. 339).
2. A petition which alleges that the plaintiffs represent a majority of the members of a named Primitive Baptist Church having a congregational form of government; that they are adherents to the organization and doctrines of the church; and that the defendants are former members of the church who were expelled at a regular conference of the church, who are continuously holding meetings in the church without the consent and against the will of the majority, which majority had the exclusive right to the use of the church property, and praying that the defendants be restrained and enjoined from using the property, states a cause of action for equitable relief, and it was not error to overrule the general demurrer interposed by the defendants.
3. Though the admission of certain testimony objected to be erroneous, a reversal will not result where other testimony to the same effect and of like nature was introduced without objection. Stewart v. Ellis, 130 Ga. 685 (2) (61 S. E. 597); Wages v. Wages, 202 Ga. 155 (2) (425. E. 2d, 481). Special grounds 2, 4, and 5 of the motion for a new trial complain that the court erred in admitting certain testimony over stated objections, but from an inspection of the brief of evidence it appears that other testimony of the same nature and character was introduced without objection. These grounds are without merit.
4. Special ground 3, which assigns error on the overruling of an objection to a question propounded to a witness on cross-examination, where it does not appear from the ground of the motion that the witness answered the question, or testified to any fact in response to the question, does not show harmful error. Pepper v. Pepper, 169 Ga. 832 (4) (152 S. E. 103); Honea v. State, 181 Ga. 40, 42 (3) (181 S. E. 416); Crawford v. Gale, 204 Ga. 448 (2) (49 S. E. 2d, 905).
5. The charge complained of in special ground 6, that the burden was upon the plaintiffs to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that they, the plaintiffs, adhered to the original organization and doctrines of the church, was not subject to the objection that, under the pleadings and the law, the burden was upon the defendants to show that the plaintiffs were not adhering to the original organization and doctrines of the church, for the reason that the plaintiffs alleged in their amended petition that they constituted a majority of the members of the church, and adhered to the organization and doctrines of the church. Under the law (Code, 22-406), the plaintiffs would not be entitled to control the property of the church unless they supported these allegations by a preponderance of the evidence. See Tucker v. Paulk, 145 Ga. 228 (supra). There was no error in giving the charge complained of.
6. For reasons stated in the corresponding division of the opinion, it was error for the court to charge the jury as complained of in special ground 7 of the motion for a new trial.
7. Courts of equity will not interfere with the internal affairs of religious organizations, involving questions of faith and doctrine, discipline, rule, custom, or church government. Applying this rule of law, it was erroneous for the court to give the charges complained of in special grounds 8 and 9 of the motion for a new trial.
8. It can not be said that the evidence demanded a verdict in favor of the defendants on their contention that the plaintiffs had withdrawn from the church, and therefore that the court's errors in the charge were harmless. A new trial being required by reason of the errors pointed out in divisions 6 and 7 above, it is unnecessary to pass either upon special, ground 1 of the motion for a new trial, which assigns error upon the findings of the jury, or upon the sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict.
This case is here on a bill of exceptions which assigns error on the overruling of the plaintiffs' motion for a new trial, and also on a cross-bill of exceptions of the defendants, assigning error on exceptions pendente lite to the overruling of their general demurrer to the petition.
The plaintiffs, J. A. Sapp et al., alleging themselves to be members of the Anderson Primitive Baptist Church and representative of a majority of such membership, averred: that, at a regular conference on June 18, 1949, the church adopted a motion that it remain aloof from all oath-bound secret societies including the labor union; that the three defendants and twelve other members voted against this resolution, and 35 members, including the plaintiffs, voted in favor thereof; that subsequently, at a conference of the church on July 16, 1949, on the question of the 15 members voting against accepting the stand of the church on the labor-union issue, said 15 members, including the defendants, were asked to and refused to submit to the order of the church, and the church withdrew fellowship from them; that on June 10, 1950, the defendants were notified in writing by the clerk of the church that they, the expelled members, had no right to use the church property, and they were requested to cease using the church property for any purpose; and that, notwithstanding the defendants had been expelled, they and the other expelled members had continued to hold church services in the church building, and threatened to make continuous use of said church. It was prayed that the defendants be restrained and enjoined from further use of the church, or from committing any trespass upon the church property. It was alleged that the plaintiffs and their associates constituted a majority of the members of the church, and that they were adherents to its organization and doctrines, and had the right to control the property of the church for the use and benefit of the same.
The defendants in their answer denied the material allegations of the petition, and alleged that the plaintiffs and their associates withdrew from the Anderson Primitive Baptist Church on July 16, 1949, and were thereafter, on September 17, 1949, expelled from the church by the defendants and their associates, and plaintiffs are no longer members of said church. They alleged that they, the defendants, had consistently adhered to the articles of faith, decorum, and covenant of the church; that the plaintiffs had no further interest in the church property; and that since the plaintiffs withdrew from the church, they have been advised that they could use the church property on the third Saturdays and Sundays of each month, and this proposition had been accepted by the plaintiffs. The prayer of the defendants was that the plaintiffs be enjoined from trespassing upon or using the property of the church except using it for funeral services or other services of like character.
The defendants demurred to the petition as amended, upon the ground that it does not set forth any cause of action, and on the further ground that the issue between the two contending factions of the church as to the possession and control of its property concerned "only the internal affairs of a religious organization," and that a court of equity had no right to interfere with such religious matters. The demurrers were overruled, the defendants duly filed exceptions pendente lite, and error is assigned by cross-bill of exceptions on the ruling complained of in the exceptions pendente lite.
On the trial before the court and a jury, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants, and recommended "that the plaintiffs have the same rights and privileges of said property," and the court entered a decree thereupon incorporating the recommendation of the jury. The plaintiffs' motion for a new trial, on the general and special grounds, was overruled, and the main bill of exceptions assigns error on that order.
Headnotes 1-5, and 8 do not require any elaboration.
6. Where no civil or property rights are involved, civil courts will not review the acts of a majority of the members of a church having a congregational form of government in expelling members of the church at a regular conference of the church. Membership in such a church is not a property right. Where it does not appear that such church has adopted any fixed rules or regulations which require notice of charges to be given a member and opportunity to be heard before his expulsion, a civil court has no jurisdiction to review the act of expulsion where such member has been expelled by a majority vote of the members of the church at a regular conference, or to determine whether the steps leading up to the expulsion were legal or illegal. Mount Olive Primitive Baptist Church v. Patrick, 252 Ala. 672 (42 So. 2d, 617, 20 A. L. R. 2d, 417, ann. p. 421).
Special ground 7 of the motion for a new trial complains that the court erred in charging the jury as follows: "I charge you further, gentlemen of the jury, that when a person becomes a member of a church organization, of the character in question here, that such person can not be expelled or excluded from such church organization arbitrarily and without notice or trial without giving such person an opportunity to appear and be beard, and if you should find in this case that any person or persons have been expelled or excluded from said church arbitrarily and without giving such person or persons notice or trial and without giving such person or persons an opportunity to appear and be heard, then, I charge you, that such expulsion and exclusion would be illegal and void." Though the charge here given in substance is the same as that which was given in Everett v. Jennings, 137 Ga. 253 (4) (73 S. E. 375), and held by this court not to be subject to the objection there made, an examination of the record in that case shows that the plaintiffs in the petition seeking to enjoin the defendants, who had been expelled from the church, from using the church property, alleged that the defendants had been expelled according to the rules and regulations of the church, and on the trial the plaintiffs had introduced in evidence a record of the decorum or rules of the church requiring the giving of notice and the trial of a member before he could be expelled. In the present case, there was no evidence that the church had ever adopted any fixed rules as to the method or manner by which a member could be excluded from membership. The charge approved in the Everett case was applicable to the pleadings and facts in that case, whereas the charge in the present case was authorized neither by the pleadings, nor the evidence, nor the law. In our opinion, the charge was subject to the objections of the defendant: that civil courts have no right to inquire into or determine the validity of the expulsion of a member from a church having a congregational form of government, and that a majority of the members of a church having such a form of government may make for the church its own rules and regulations as to expulsion of members, and where no civil or property rights are involved, the courts have no authority to review the act of expulsion. The majority of the courts of other jurisdictions apply the rule that civil courts will not review the expulsion of a church member on the ground that his expulsion was illegal because he had not received notice of any charge against him, or an opportunity to be heard. See comprehensive annotation on the expulsion of church members in 20 A. L. R. 2d, page 451.
7. Special ground 8 complains that the court erred in giving to the jury the following charge: "It is your duty to determine, from the evidence adduced to you, whether or not a labor union is an oath-bound secret society, contrary to the examples of Christ and the Apostles . . . If you do not find that a labor union is an oath-bound secret society plainly contrary to the examples of Christ and the Apostles . . . you should find against the plaintiffs in this case"; the assignment of error being that it was beyond the province of the court and jury to construe a tenet adopted by the church as to whether or not a labor union was an oath-bound secret society, in that such was a matter of faith and doctrine which the members of the church had the exclusive right to determine, and was not a question that a court or jury had the right to pass upon.
Special ground 9 assigns error on the following charge: "Now, gentlemen, the burden rests upon the plaintiffs in this case to satisfy you by a preponderance of the evidence: First, that a labor union is an oath-bound secret society. Second, that a labor union is an oath-bound secret society which is plainly contrary to the examples of Christ and the Apostles."
It appears from the minutes of the June, 1949, conference of the church, kept by both factions, that the Anderson Primitive Baptist Church had accepted and recognized as one of its articles of faith the doctrine and practice that the church "must stand aloof from . . . all the worldly . . . institutions, such as oath-bound secret societies, which are plainly contrary to the examples of Christ and His Apostles."
It also appears from the uncontradicted evidence that at this conference the members of the church voted 35 to 15 in favor of a motion for "the church to stand aloof from all oath-bound secret societies (including the Labor Union)." The church, acting through a majority of its members, settled this issue of doctrine and faith, viz., that a labor union was an oath-bound secret society. Whether good or bad, true or false, neither the court nor jury had a right to pass on the question of whether a labor union is an oath-bound secret society or not. Following the settled principles of the law, the courts of this State and of the United States have consistently adhered to the sound and salutary rule that civil courts have no power or authority to interfere in the internal affairs of a religious organization concerning doctrines, faith, or belief. Stewart v. Jarriel, 206 Ga. 855
(59 S. E. 2d, 368). The traditional American doctrine of freedom of religion and separation of church and state carries with it freedom of the church from having its doctrines or beliefs defined, interpreted, or censored by civil courts. These rules and principles are stated in Watson v. Jones, 80 U. S. 679 (20 L. ed. 666), as follows: "In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed." Pp. 728-729.
The effect of these charges was to permit the jury to review and determine the correctness or incorrectness of the church's action on a question of religious belief and doctrine. The charges were clearly erroneous.
Judgment reversed the main bill of exceptions; affirmed on the cross-bill. All the Justices concur.