After only two weeks in the books, Hosanna-Tabor lends a helping hand to the South Dakota Supreme Court in resolving a decade-long religious leadership controversy in Wipf v. Hutterville Hutterian Bretheren, Inc. SD Sup. Ct., Jan. 25, 2012. See Here.

In 1992, the North American Schmiedeleut Hutterian Church, a religion endorsing an agrarian, communal life based on the Bible’s New Testament, split into two competing factions. Out of 173 Hutterian colonies located mostly in the United States, 95 colonies disclaimed the leadership of their once-reining Senior Elder, Reverend Kleinsasser, because of allegations that Kleinsasser misused church funds. See Here. As a replacement, disgruntled colonies endorsed a new candidate, Reverend Wipf, as the new Senior Elder of the Hutterian Church.

Although the leadership transition went smoothly in the preponderance of Hutterian colonies throughout the United States, in some colonies, to say the least, it did not. The Hutterville Colony of South Dakota, for example, continues to fight over its corporate governance structure ever since the initial schism in 1992. While some members refuse to repudiate Kleinsasser’s leadership, others believe Wipf is now entitled to the leadership chair in the Hutterville Colony, which is organized as a non-profit corporation under South Dakota law. Because building consensus within the colony after so many years proved futile, however, litigation seemed like the only recourse and ensued in 2010. If the community couldn’t resolve the leadership dilemma, the contending factions at least hoped the secular judiciary would do it for them, once and for all.

Before Hosanna-Tabor had any say, a South Dakota Circuit Court did just that. Instead of asserting that the First Amendment precluded the court from scrutinizing such ecclesiastical matters for fear of entangling itself in religious doctrine and belief, Judge Wold held the only solution was for the Hutterville Colony to dissolve so that its assets could be distributed equally to all the members of the community.

Upon review, however, the South Dakota Supreme Court in Wipf v. Hutterville Hutterian Bretheren, Inc took a step back from Judge Wold’s decision in light of Hosanna-Tabor‘s recent teaching: certain ecclesiastical matters such as internal leadership decisions should not be adjudicated by secular courts. Because the Hutterville Colony’s corporate governance structure made following the Hutteritan religion a prerequisite of corporate membership and incorporated sectarian doctrine throughout much of its corporate documents, the South Dakota Supreme Court recognized it had no place in adjudicating this religious controversy. In order to resolve the dispute it would not only have to analyze the Hutterian religious doctrine, a totally foreign subject matter, but it would also have to render a legal judgment based on these sectarian teachings.The South Dakota Supreme Court thus held it lacked jurisdiction to order the dissolution of the colony, placing the controversy back in the hands of the Hutterville Colony to determine whether Kleinsasser or Wipf rightly assumed the rod of power.

In one of the first cases to cite Hosanna-Tabor, Wipf vindicates the limited role of secular courts in resolving matters of ecclesiastical import. So while Hosanna-Tabor surprisingly failed to define who qualifies as a minister for purposes of the ministerial exception, the decision’s clear declaration of the limited role of courts in resolving internal religious controversies will likely make serious waves in state and federal courts alike in the years to come. Contrary to its hopes, then, the Hutterville Colony found no secular enlightenment in the South Dakota Supreme Court in the wake of Hosanna-Tabor. Instead, the religious community must rely on its own internal dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve its decade-long controversy as to who shall reign supreme in Hutterville.