• Key point. A church affiliated with a hierarchical denomination may be able to retain its property if it disaffiliates from the parent denomination, despite a provision to the contrary in denominational bylaws.
A federal appeals court ruled that a Church of God in Christ congregation that voted to secede from the national church retained control of its property.The court also ruled that the national church had no authority to remove the pastor of the seceding church. The Church of God in Christ (the Church) is a large religious organization with headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. The Church’s charter provides that local affiliates shall hold their property in trust for the Memphis organization. Jurisdictional bishops are responsible for ensuring local compliance with the Church’s doctrinal and other policies and are empowered to appoint and remove pastors for the local churches within their jurisdiction. A Missouri congregation was organized in the 1960s under the leadership of a founding pastor. The pastor was a credentialed Church minister and paid the annual assessments necessary to retain those credentials. The congregation contributed money to the Church in response to requests to support certain organized activities, and some of the congregation’s members occasionally held administrative positions with the Church. Despite the spiritual relation between the two institutions, the pastor never acknowledged that his congregation was subject to any regulatory oversight by the Church. Additionally, whenever the congregation purchased property, it took title in its own name. Its articles of incorporation declare its independence, stating that “it is expressly understood that this corporation is not bound by or subject to oversight by any other ecclesiastical body.” Similarly, its bylaws state that “the corporation is not under the authority or jurisdiction of any bishop or any other person affiliated with the Church of God in Christ.” The congregation elected a new pastor in 1991 following the founding pastor’s death. Several months later the presiding bishop installed the new pastor in that position in accord with Church practice. In 1992, as a result of a controversy over Faith the congregation’s relationship to the Church, the presiding bishop issued a directive revoking the pastor’s credentials and purporting to remove him from the pulpit. In 1993 the Church filed suit, seeking a court order requiring the pastor to vacate the pulpit and a declaration of the Church’s interest in the congregation’s property. A federal district court ruled that the congregation was independent of the Church and that it should retain its property free of any claims of the Church. The Church appealed, and a federal appeals court affirmed the ruling of the district court.
control of church property
The court applied Missouri law, and noted that Missouri courts had adopted the “neutral principles of law” approach to resolving church property disputes. Under this approach the civil courts resolve such disputes by looking to a number of neutral factors for guidance, including (1) the language of the local church’s charter and bylaws; (2) relevant state statutes; (3) deeds to the disputed property; (4) the charter and bylaws of denominational agencies; and (5) “other evidence relating to who controls and contributed to the acquisition of the contested property.” The court concluded that the local congregation retained title to its properties under the neutral principles of law approach on the basis of the following considerations:
The national Church contributed nothing to the acquisition of the congregation’s property.
The local congregation exercised complete control over the property without any interference from the Church. Indeed, the court pointed out that never in the congregation’s history, until the events leading to this lawsuit, had the Church attempted to exercise any control over the congregation.
The congregation’s articles of incorporation explicitly declare its independence from the national Church.
The deeds to the congregation’s properties vest title and control in the hands of the local congregation.
The court acknowledged that the Church’s charter and constitution had to be given due consideration, but concluded that these documents did not give the Church control over the congregation’s properties under the neutral principles of law approach. It rejected the Church’s claim that the congregation held its properties “in trust” for the national Church. The court observed that there was no reason for the congregation’s members to believe their property was held in trust for the Church. The court concluded that “[a]ny reliance of the Church on its charter and constitution is severely diluted by this finding.” The court noted that “[t]he Church did not automatically provide local pastors with a copy of its manual, nor was it distributed generally to [the congregation’s] members. To require the … congregation to hold its property in trust for another without proper notice as to that requirement would too severely distort the application of neutral principles of Missouri law. With only its charter and constitution to point to, no evidence that [the congregation] actually acquiesced in that constitution, and all the other considerations pointing in favor of [the congregation] we conclude that the national Church cannot wrest ownership from the … congregation under neutral principles of Missouri law.”
removal of the pastor
The court also ruled that it lacked any authority to enforce the Church’s attempted removal of the pastor. It observed:
Nor is it our place to opine on the extent to which these two religious entities should interact doctrinally and defer to one another on ecclesiastical matters in light of their structural independence. Those matters are left to them. The Church is free to revoke [the pastor’s] credentials as a recognized Church minister and to deny him any ecclesiastical recognition, a decision that would be beyond the reach of our jurisdiction. Because [the congregation] is not part of the Church’s hierarchy, however, it cannot be subject to the polity mandates of the national Church. The body to which we must defer, the highest ecclesiastical decision—making body within [the congregation], i.e., its board of trustees, has not expressed a desire to have [the pastor] removed; therefore, we have no authority to require him to vacate the pulpit.
The court acknowledged that civil courts are compelled by the first amendment to “defer” to the decisions of denominational bodies in cases involving hierarchical denominations with respect to questions of faith and polity. The court concluded that the Church of God in Christ was not a hierarchical denomination, and accordingly it ruled that it was not required to defer to the denomination’s decision regarding the removal of the pastor. Church of God in Christ v. Graham, 54 F.3d 522 (8th Cir. 1995). [ State Court Rulings Regarding Church Property Disputes]
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