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2010-MO-014 - Allaby v. R.G. Stair

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Supreme Court

Glendon Allaby, Kathryn Allaby, Cora Pfund, Eric Pfund, Greg Lindsey, Larry Hartley, Michael Duval, Kathleen Duval, Pearl Butler, Timothy Butler, and Kevin Nevin, Respondents,

v.

R.G. Stair and Faith Cathedral Fellowship, Inc., a/k/a Overcomer Ministries, Appellants.


Appeal from Colleton County
J. Ernest Kinard, Jr., Circuit Court Judge
Howard P. King, Circuit Court Judge
D. Garrison Hill, Circuit Court Judge


Memorandum Opinion No. 2010-MO-014
Heard April 7, 2010 – Filed May 17, 2010


REVERSED


Deborah Harrison Sheffield, of Columbia, and Mathias Genard Chaplin, of Columbia, for Appellants.

Bert G. Utsey, III, of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Ellzroth & Detrick,  of Walterboro, David W. Whittington and Brad Allen Oliver, both of Knight Law Firm, of Summerville, for Respondents.


PER CURIAM:  This appeal presents the following question:  May a church member maintain a direct, personal action for the recovery of unrestricted funds donated to his or her church based on a claim that the funds were expended for a non-religious purpose?  The answer is no.  Once unrestricted funds are donated to a church, the funds belong to the church.

Respondents' donations through the years were unrestricted gifts.  Once donated to the church, the gift was complete.  See Baptist Found. for Christian Educ. v. Baptist Coll. at Charleston, 282 S.C. 53, 58-59, 317 S.E.2d 453, 457 (Ct. App. 1984) ("If a donor intends to confer on another ownership of his property, and if he proceeds so far as to do it, then the gift is complete. . . . Mere improvidence is not sufficient to invalidate a donation.") (citations omitted).  As reprehensible as R.G. Stair's misconduct (financial and otherwise) may be,[1] an individual church member may not maintain an action to personally recover unrestricted funds he or she donated to the church.  While we understand Respondents' challenges to R.G. Stair's use of donated church funds for personal expenses, an action for the recovery of the misspent funds, if any, lies with the church, not the individual church members who donated the funds.  Here, notwithstanding R.G. Stair's admitted misconduct, the church as a body has elected to take no action.  See Bowen v. Green, 275 S.C. 431, 435, 272 S.E.2d 433, 435 (1980) ("It is not for this court, to dictate procedure for the church to follow.  It is the function of this court, however, in these circumstances, to assure that the church itself has spoken.  If it has, this court inquires no further.  If it has not, this court may restore the status quo to enable the church to act.").  In this case, the church has spoken. 

Furthermore, were we to consider the merits of this dispute, we would veer close to crossing a line prohibited by the Constitution, for it would require this Court to examine what qualifies as a "religious purpose."  See Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 722-23 (1976) (holding the First Amendment gives religious organizations the freedom to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government, faith, and doctrine).  Respondents have not asserted that R.G. Stair misrepresented his or Faith Cathedral Fellowship's identity to Respondents.  Rather, Respondents have challenged certain expenditures made by R.G. Stair as "non-Christian" and "non-religious."  Compare Molko v. Holy Spirit Assn., 762 P.2d 46 (Cal. 1988) (holding the Constitution did not bar an action against the church for fraud where a member alleged the church fraudulently induced him, through misrepresentation and concealment of identity, to join the church and to give a monetary gift). 

We reverse the trial court judgments in favor of Respondents.

REVERSED.

TOAL, C.J., PLEICONES, BEATTY, KITTREDGE and HEARN, JJ., concur.


[1]  There are many allegations concerning R.G. Stair's "non-religious" expenditure of church funds.  For example, R.G. Stair spent over $100,000 of church funds to defend criminal charges arising from his many instances of sexual misconduct with church members, including minors.