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 non- doctrinal 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 South Carolina appeals court ruled that a denomination did not have a legal interest in the property of a local church that voted to disaffiliate from the denomination. A regional denominational agency of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (the "regional church") claimed an interest in a 5-acre tract and bank account of a church that voted to disaffiliate from the denomination. A trial court ruled that the regional church failed to prove any ownership interest in the property or bank account, and the regional church appealed.