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Church Property

Court rules that the property of a dissident church belonged to a national church body


A Missouri court ruled that the property of a dissident church belonged to a national church body with which it was affiliated.

The local church opposed a 1984 resolution of the national church which permitted the ordination of women into the priesthood. After efforts to work out their differences failed, the national church attempted in install a new minister. When the congregation overwhelmingly voted to retain their original minister, the national church had the locks to the church property changed, barricades erected, and notices posted to keep people off the property. The congregation proceeded to have keys made to the new locks, removed the barricades, and held services on the premises.

The national church then sought and obtained a court order banning the minister "and those acting in concert with him" from entering onto church property and from in any way disrupting the worship services conducted on the property.

The congregation appealed this order, and a Missouri appeals court ruled in favor of the national church. With regard to the ownership of the church property, the court observed that "Missouri courts have adopted the neutral principles approach as the exclusive method for the resolution of church property disputes. Under this approach, the court must refrain from resolving the dispute on the basis of religious doctrine and must rely instead on general principles of state property and trust law to resolve a church property dispute.

The court may consider who holds record title, the language of deeds, any relevant state statutes, and both local and general church documents that provide guidance or instruction on the ownership of church property. The court must, however, in scrutinizing religious documents do so in secular terms, rather than relying on religious precepts or concepts."

Under this test, the court concluded that the national church owned the property, since the deed to the property created an express trust in favor of the national church, as did relevant documents of the national church. Further, such provisions did not require any inquiries into religious doctrine.

The congregation also claimed that the national church could not obtain judicial relief since it had failed to "exhaust" or pursue available ecclesiastical remedies. The court rejected this argument, since "questions of whether or not the [national church] had exhausted its remedies within the church and whether or not church procedures were followed are ecclesiastical in nature and require interpretation of authority within the church as well as interpretation of church practice and policy. Under the neutral principles approach such matters were irrelevant toward resolving the underlying property dispute."

For similar reasons, the court rejected the congregation's argument that the national church had deviated from established ecclesiastical procedures. Finally, the court rejected the congregation's arguments that it was entitled to the property in question on the basis of a "constructive trust" or "purchase money resulting trust."

Generally, when one pays the purchase price for land and has legal title vested in another, a presumption arises that the latter holds the property under a "resulting trust" in favor of the other party. Since the local congregation paid for its property, but had title vested in the national church, it argued that the national church held the title subject to a resulting trust in favor of the local congregation.

In rejecting this argument, the court emphasized that "the burden of proof to establish a resulting trust is an extraordinary one" that the local congregation failed to satisfy. The court concluded that the local church originally had intended to make a gift of the property to the national church. The court also upheld the trial court's injunction barring the minister and his supporters from entering onto church property, or from interfering in anyway with church services. Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Thomas, 758 S.W.2d 726 (Mo. App. 1988).

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  • May 1, 1989

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