Imagine you’re out on your tractor planting corn on your farm. Some city slicker pulls up to the fenceline and flags you down. You finish your row, hop down, and head over to the barbed wire to see what ants he’s got in his pants. Mr. City Slicker serves you papers saying you have to stop planting your corn because your land is leased to some corporation of which you’ve never heard. “Hogwash!” you say. “This is my land. I never signed any lease.”
“No,” says Mr. City Slicker, “but your brother-in-law did.”
“My brother-in-law!” you exclaim. “That lazy bum lives in the basement. I was going to kick him out, but my wife said we need to help him out until he finds a job. He doesn’t own this farm. He can’t sign a lease.”
“Well, he says he does, and he leased the whole farm to this corporation, so quit planting.”
That’s the closest analogy I can draw to the wild case of Red Acre v. Hutterville Hutterian Brethren, which the South Dakota Supreme Court heard yesterday. Last May, Johnny Wipf, claiming to act as president and trustee of the Hutterville colony in the southeast corner of Brown County, signed a lease with Red Acre LLC, a company created by Aberdeen lawyer Robert Ronayne in 2009. Red Acre appears to have no online existence other than news mentions of this court case.
Wipf aligns himself with a branch of the Hutterites who split from the main Hutterite church in 1992. For the last seven years, Wipf and his 11 followers have battled for control of Hutterville with the local colony majority who stand on the other side of that churchwide split and who recognize the local leadership of colony Rev. George Waldner. The Wipf and Waldner factions have fought this battle on numerous fronts, including deeds and lawsuits. In previous cases involving Wipf’s effort to sign over to himself complete ownership and control of the Hutterville colony’s property, the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that the Hutterville dispute is outside any secular court’s jurisdiction, because determining who runs Hutterville requires determining who is and is not a member of the Hutterite Church, and the First Amendment forbids the courts from making such a theological pronouncement.
Such is the argument Wipf and Red Acre made to the Supreme Court yesterday. Membership in the Hutterville corporation, the entity that can make contracts and take other legal actions, is based on membership in the local Hutterite church. The only way to determine the validity of the Red Acre lease is to determine whether Johnny Wipf really belongs to the local Hutterville church. The Court cannot determine church membership; therefore, the Court cannot determine the validity of the lease.
Do you see the absurdity here?
Suppose I decide to claim I am a Hutterville Hutterite. I get hold of a Minnesota developer, offer to sell her 9,800 acres, sign a contract and take the payment (I offer the land at a bargain, $2,500 per acre, and collect $24.5 million). Rev. Waldner and Johnny Wipf will flip their lids, but hey, what are they going to do, take me to court? No church can say I’m not a Hutterite, that I don’t believe in what the local Hutterville church believes (I’m a liberal, they’re communists, perfect fit, right?). Any opposition from members of the Hutterville corporation is based, as Wipf’s lawyers say in their response to appellees (p. 8), “upon the existence of corporate authority that no secular court is permitted to recognize.”
Wipf’s legal reasoning opens the door for me, you, and any wise guy to co-opt the legal authority and property of any religious entity, or to render any contract made by any religious group unenforceable.
The Waldner group’s lawyers whack away at Wipf’s absurdity by pointing out what the Hutterite Church and Johnny Wipf himself has said. In January 2008, 55 ministers of the Hutterite Church held a big tribunal up in Canada. This tribunal stripped Johnny Wipf of “witness brother” status in the Hutterville church. In depositions, Johnny Wipf said he had accepted the tribunal’s decision. In 2009, Wipf led eleven other Hutterville members to join a different Hutterite church, which Wipf in depositions acknowledged is separate from the Hutterville church.
Under the Ecclesiastical Deference Doctrine enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court, South Dakota’s courts not only can but must act on the Hutterite Church’s own determination that Johnny Wipf does not have the membership the local colony church that would give him any authority to participate in making any contracts or decisions for the Hutterville colony. Waldner’s lawyers say the court is obliged to put an end to Wipf’s devious “charade”:
This Court could not have intended, on the one hand, to say that only the Church can decide whether Wipf is or is not a member; and at the same time have intended that its pronouncement should be interpreted to mean that Hutterville is forever barred from producing evidence that the Church has, in fact, decided. If that were the case, the Court may just as well have ruled that Wipf may have perpetual veto power over all of Hutterville’s business transactions so long as he chooses to tell all who will listen that he is in charge—which is exactly what he has been doing since 2008 [Appellee’s Brief, Red Acre v. Hutterville, filed 2015.01.08, pp. 39–40].
To say that secular courts cannot rule on the validity of contracts made by religious groups dooms churches to chaos in their dealings with the secular world as well as with disgruntled members. The South Dakota Supreme Court needs to rectify its error and allow the Hutterville colony to farm its own land and govern its own affairs.