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Hawkins v. St. John Missionary Baptist Church of Bakersfield (2017)

March 15, 2017

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In this appeal, Horvitz & Levy LLP successfully obtained reversal of a judgment requiring the removal of the pastor of the St. John Missionary Baptist church in Bakersfield.

A group of dissenting members of the church filed a lawsuit to oust the church’s pastor. The trial court appointed a referee to oversee a church vote to determine whether the pastor would be retained, and then excluded the votes of active church members who supported the pastor while at the same time counting the votes of other inactive members who voted against the pastor. As a result of the trial court’s rulings, the pastor lost by one vote.

Horvitz & Levy filed an appeal on behalf of the church, the pastor, and the church’s board of deacons, arguing that the trial court’s rulings violated the First Amendment, as well as the individual rights of the excluded active church members. Horvitz & Levy’s position on behalf of the church was supported by amicus briefs filed by the UCLA School of Law’s Scott & Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic and the Stanford Law School Religious Liberty Clinic.

Agreeing with Horvitz & Levy’s argument that the trial court had disenfranchised active church members, the Court of Appeal (Fifth Appellate District) reversed the judgment and directed the trial court to count the votes of the excluded members.