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Issues that affect ministers and churches
Church Disaffiliation Property Dispute
Court rules that national church holds title to local church’s property.

Key Point 7-03.2 Some courts apply the "compulsory deference" rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in "hierarchical" churches. Under this rule, the civil courts defer to the determinations of denominational agencies in resolving such disputes.

A California appeals court ruled that a national church held title to the property of a local church that had voted to disaffiliate. A local Episcopal church voted to disaffiliate from the national church in 2004 and take the local church property with it. The church amended its articles of incorporation to delete all references to the national church. A majority of the congregation voted to support the decision, but a minority of 12 members voted against it. The national church, along with other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit in which they asked a court to rule that the local church property was held in trust for the local diocese.

A state appeals court, in one of the most lengthy discussions of church property disputes, ruled that the local church property was held in trust for the diocese. It based this conclusion on the following considerations:

1. Six rulings by the California Supreme Court, spanning the years from 1889 to 1952, "consistently used a 'highest church judicatory' approach to resolve disputes over church property, an approach it applied to hierarchically organized churches and nonhierarchically organized churches alike." Under this approach, the civil courts must follow the rulings of the highest church tribunal as to the use and ownership of the property. The court quoted from a landmark 1871 decision by the United States Supreme Court: "Whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them." Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871). This approach, which is sometimes referred to as the "compulsory deference" or "hierarchical" rule, has been adopted in a few other states.

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