COA: Elkhart pastor incorrectly found in contempt, ordered to jail

A years-long dispute between an Elkhart pastor and members of his congregation has resulted in a reversal from an appellate panel that determined a trial court erred in ordering the faith leader to spend one month in jail.

Tensions rose between the Rev. McNeal Stewart III’s tenure when members of the Canaan Baptist Church’s deacon board — Lawrence Burns, Ron Davis, James House, Curtis Brown, and Stan McCray — took legal action against Stewart in 2016.

The suit asserted numerous issues regarding Stewart stemming from allegations that he usurped the authority of the church board of directors and disregarded its constitution and bylaws.

As undecided motions to compel Stewart were pending in the Elkhart Superior Court, McCray initiated a second and separate cause against Stewart, alleging he interfered with the function of the board of directors and failed to abide by a disciplinary action issued against him by the board. McCray specifically requested the trial court enforce the disciplinary action, which would hand Stewart a 30-day paid suspension and a 60-day unpaid suspension.

The trial court ruled to enforce the 30-day suspension but declined to enforce the 60-day suspension. Ultimately, the trial court found Stewart to be in contempt of court, ordered him confined to the Elkhart County Jail for a term of 30 days, and ordered him to pay $2,500 to the plaintiffs’ counsel.

Stewart appealed the Elkhart Superior Court’s determination, arguing that the trial court exceeded its subject matter jurisdiction when it became involved in his suspension from his church duties and in a retention vote regarding his continued employment, rendering the trial court’s orders in the matter void ab initio.

The Indiana Court of Appeals sided with Stewart, disagreeing with McCray’s position that the matter falls within the trial court’s jurisdiction because the church is incorporated under Indiana’s not-for-profit statutes. Similarly, it rejected the assertion that the trial court’s determinations did not require it to delve into matter of doctrine or faith.

“The instant matter arises from Rev. Stewart’s suspension from his pastoral duties for his alleged failure to act in accordance with the Church’s Bylaws. Regardless of whether the parties, at times, failed to adhere to the Church’s Bylaws, at bottom, this is a dispute over the Church’s leadership. As such, this matter, at its core, is purely ecclesiastical and one which the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to adjudicate,” Senior Judge Ezra H. Friedlander wrote for the appellate panel.

“Based on the foregoing, we conclude that the trial court erred in finding Rev. Stewart in contempt of court and ordering him to serve thirty days in the Elkhart County jail because it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to decide Canaan II,” the appellate panel wrote reversing and remanding for Canaan II to be dismissed.

“All orders issued by the trial court in Canaan II are void ab initio. By separate order of this court, and issued simultaneously with this opinion, McCray’s counsel is ordered to return to Rev. Stewart the $2,500.00 that Rev. Stewart paid to counsel on December 4, 2018,” it concluded.

The case is McNeal Stewart, Michael A. Carpenter, and Sheneen Haley v. Stan R. McCray and Canaan Baptist Church of Elkhart, Indiana, Inc., 19A-PL-149.

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