• Key point 7-03.3. Most courts apply the 'neutral principles of law' rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in 'hierarchical' churches. Under this rule, the civil courts apply neutral principles of law, involving no inquiry into church doctrine, in resolving church property disputes. Generally, this means applying neutral legal principles to nondoctrinal language in any one or more of the following documents: (1) deeds to church property; (2) a church's corporate charter; (3) a state law addressing the resolution of church property disputes; (4) church bylaws; or (5) a parent denomination's bylaws.
State Court Rulings Regarding Church Property Disputes
* The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the validity of a canon adopted by the national Episcopal Church in 1979 imposing a trust upon the properties of affiliated churches in favor of the national church. An Episcopal church was founded in 1846. Its charter stated that its purpose was to 'worship Almighty God according to the faith and discipline of the [National Episcopal Church].' The charter further established the church's allegiance to the national Episcopal Church ('national church'), stating that the church was a member of the local diocese and the national church, that the church was subject to the national church's constitution and canons, and that church members had to accept the authority of the diocese and national church. In addition, the charter stated that the church could not sell any of its property without the diocese's consent.