Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
Neutral Principle of Law Applied to Church Property Dispute
In many cases, a court may resolve a dispute over church property.
New York
State:
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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.

Key point 7-04. Churches and denominational agencies can avoid church property disputes by adopting appropriate nondoctrinal language in deeds, trusts, local church bylaws, or denominational bylaws.

A New York court ruled that the property of a church that seceded from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. was held in trust for the benefit of the national church, and therefore the seceding church had no further legal right of ownership or possession. In 1979, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling pertaining to church property disputes, in which it ruled that a state is "constitutionally entitled to adopt neutral principles of law as a means of adjudicating a church property dispute." Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979). In discussing the benefits of a "neutral principles of law" approach, the Supreme Court observed that "through appropriate reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify what is to happen to church property in the event of a particular contingency, or what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal controversy. In this manner, a religious organization can ensure that a dispute over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires of the members."

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