Court of Appeals of Texas, Seventh District, Amarillo
IN RE JORGE TORRES AND TEMPLO BAUTISTA DAMASCO D/B/A TEMPLO DAMASCO, RELATORS
ORIGINAL PROCEEDING FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS
QUINN, CJ., and CAMPBELL and PARKER, JJ.
QUINN CHIEF JUSTICE.
Torres and Templo Bautista Damasco d/b/a Templo Damasco,
Relators, petition this Court for a writ of mandamus
directing the Honorable Gordon H. Green, 287th Judicial
District Court (trial court), "to vacate his order
[granting new trial] dated May 24, 2019, and reinstate his
Order Granting Defendant's Plea to the Jurisdiction,
dismissing in full the underlying lawsuit for want of
jurisdiction." We conditionally grant the writ.
matter before us arose from an "Application for
Temporary Restraining Order, Temporary Injunction, and
Permanent Injunction" filed by Esperanza Herrera and
Alfredo Ramirez. They sought injunctive relief barring Torres
and Templo Bautista and their agents and representatives
directly or indirectly taking any actions on behalf of the
Church [i.e., Templo Bautista], and instead allow for the
Church membership, in accordance with the Church's past
policies and procedures and Constitution and after a full
vote of the membership to permanently elect its preacher,
committees and guide the day to day operations of the Church
(to include, if such is the decision of the members of the
Church, Mr. Jorge Torres).
and Ramirez moved for such relief after accusing Torres and
other parishioners aligned with him of generally 1) usurping
authority and the pulpit within the church contrary to the
unincorporated association's "constitution or
policies and practices," 2) ousting other parishioners
who held offices with the church, including the pastor, and
3) barring the return of those ousted by inducing local
police to cite them for criminal trespass. Torres and Templo
Bautista filed their plea to the trial court's
jurisdiction, contending that the "ecclesiastical
abstention doctrine" denied the trial court
subject-matter jurisdiction over the proceeding. The trial
court originally agreed with the movants but reconsidered its
decision when Ramirez and Herrera moved for a new trial. The
latter motion was granted, resulting in the petition now
is an extraordinary remedy available only in limited
situations. Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d
833, 840 (Tex. 1992) (orig. proceeding); In re
Talley, No. 07-15- 00198-CV, 2015 Tex.App. LEXIS 6268,
at *3-4 (Tex. App.-Amarillo June 22, 2015, orig. proceeding)
(mem. op.). Its small umbrella, though, extends over
jurisdictional disputes. See, e.g., In re Swart,
___S.W.3d ___, ___, 2019 Tex.App.
LEXIS 5732, at *6-7 (Tex. App.-Dallas July 9, 2019, orig.
proceeding) (involving the existence of personal jurisdiction
and stating that "[a]bsent mandamus review,
jurisdictional and other like issues . . . would be rendered
effectively meaningless); In re Duddlesten, No.
01-18- 00561-CV, 2018 Tex.App. LEXIS 10649, at *11-12 (Tex.
App.-Houston [1st Dist.] Dec. 20, 2018, orig. proceeding)
(mem. op.) (holding that mandamus covers issues of standing,
which is a component of subject-matter jurisdiction); In
re St. Thomas High Sch., 495 S.W.3d 500, 506 (Tex.
App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2016, orig. proceeding) (involving
subject matter jurisdiction). Within such disputes are
allegations about the absence of jurisdiction based on
religious-liberty grounds. See Westbrook v. Penley,
231 S.W.3d 389, 394-95 (Tex. 2007) (stating that a lack of
jurisdiction may be raised through a plea to a court's
jurisdiction when religious-liberty grounds form the basis of
the jurisdictional challenge). And, such is the dispute here.
Torres and Templo Bautista argue that the First Amendment of
the United States Constitution and its concept of religious
liberty obligated the trial court to grant the plea to the
jurisdiction. We agree.
Supreme Court, the neutral principles methodology controls
our resolution of issues like that here. See Masterson v.
Diocese of Nw. Tex., 422 S.W.3d 594, 596 (Tex. 2013).
Under it, courts may decide non-ecclesiastical issues such as
property ownership based on the same neutral principles of
law applicable to other entities, while deferring to the
decisions of religious entities on ecclesiastical and church
polity matters. Id.
previously mentioned, Ramirez and Herrera complain about the
removal of a pastor, his replacement by another, the manner
in which that was done, whether it complied with the church
procedures, the removal of parishioners as church members,
and the way Torres and those aligned with him came to govern
their church. And, though their complaints allude to
church property and accounts, neither Ramirez nor Herrera
purport to claim ownership of that property or those
accounts. Rather, their concerns regarding the property
relate to issues of stewardship. That is, they question
whether those now operating the church, i.e., the Torres
group, are caring for that property in a way they, i.e., the
Herrera group, deem appropriate and beneficial for the church
and its members. Indeed, implicit within their dispute is
the recognition that Templo still owns and has the right to
possess church assets. Simply put, these allegations
regarding church property are not those of the ilk deemed
justiciable under the aforementioned neutral principles
methodology. It extends to disputes about property ownership.
See Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 399 (recognizing that
the methodology extends to adjudicating disputes about
ownership of church property without running afoul of First
Amendment concerns, so long as resolution of ownership
entails no inquiry into religious doctrine); accord
Masterson, 422 S.W.3d at 596 (noting that within the
realm of non-ecclesiastical issues lies the topic of
"property ownership"). To reiterate something we
said years ago when addressing another instance of
congregational division, "[i]t is to be noticed that
this is not one of those suits where the local congregation
becomes divided and each division claims to have the right to
the property to the exclusion of the other members."
African Methodist Episcopal Church v. Indep. African
Episcopal Church, 281 S.W.2d 758, 759 (Tex. Civ.
App.-Amarillo 1955, writ refd n.r.e.). Here, ownership is not
in question, but rather the quality of stewardship being
exercised over it.
addition to questions of stewardship lies other issues deemed
within the realm of ecclesiastical and polity disputes
outside a civil court's jurisdiction. They are
categorized as internal matters of church governance with
which civil courts must avoid intrusion. See
Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 397; see also Retta v.
Mekonen, 338 S.W.3d 72, 76 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2011, no
pet.) (quoting Westbrook, 231 S.W.3d at 397, 401-02.
Such matters include: 1) the right of a church to control its
membership and decide who to admit or exclude, see
Retta, 338 S.W.3d at 76; 2) compliance with the bylaws
or constitution of the church, see id; Smith v. N. Tex.
Dist Council of the Assemblies of God, No. 02-05-425-CV,
2006 Tex.App. LEXIS 10244, at *7-8 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth
2006, no pet.) (mem. op.) (stating that matters regarding the
interpretation of church bylaws and constitutions are
ecclesiastical matters); 3) the removal of a pastor, see
Dean v. Alford, 994 S.W.2d 392, 395-96 (Tex. App.-Fort
Worth 1999, no pet.); 4) the legitimacy of an election by
which church authorities were selected, see Singh v.
Sandhar, 495 S.W.3d 482, 492-93 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th
Dist.] 2016, no pet.) (holding that "the trial court did
not have jurisdiction to order an election or choose which
election was 'valid and controlling' based on a
certain membership list"); and 5) who within the church
may exercise authority to admit or exclude church members.
the complaints of Herrera and Ramirez to the foregoing
categories of ecclesiastical matters leads us to the
following. The propriety of Torres's elevation to the
pulpit, the propriety of his and his group's purported
usurpation of control over the church, the propriety of
Torres's stewardship over church property, the removal
from the church of members contesting his authority, and the
removal of some other pastor are controversies insulated from
judicial interference under the neutral principles
methodology. Thus, the trial court lacked subject-matter
jurisdiction to address or regulate them. So, in vacating its
earlier decision to dismiss the action, it erred.
conditionally grant Torres and Templo Bautista a writ of
mandamus dependent upon the trial court failing to 1) vacate
its decision granting a new trial and 2) reinstate its
dismissal of the ...