• 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.
State Court Rulings Regarding Church Property Disputes
* A Massachusetts court applied the “compulsory deference rule” in resolving a property dispute between a church and a hierarchical denomination, and enforced the denomination’s resolution of the dispute. Organized in 1789, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (“PECUSA”) traces its roots to the earliest days of post-revolutionary America. Within PECUSA are 113 geographically defined dioceses. Within each diocese are separate parishes and missions. PECUSA and its affiliated dioceses and parishes are governed by a national constitution and canons, and each diocese is also governed by its own diocesan constitution and canons. A local church (“St. Paul’s”) formed as a mission of PECUSA in 1882, and incorporated in 1890. Its bylaws provide (i) that St. Paul’s “accedes to the Constitution, Canons, doctrine, discipline and worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and to the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Massachusetts, and acknowledges their authority;” and (ii) “that no amendment shall ever be made which shall in any degree release the Parish from its allegiance to the authority of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America or the Diocese within the limits of which the Parish may be.” Those provisions remained untouched until 1996.
Beginning in 1994, the membership of St. Paul’s found itself in disagreement with the Massachusetts Diocese (“Diocese”) and PECUSA on various doctrinal matters, including same-sex marriages and the ordination of homosexuals. Church leaders also were frustrated with what they considered an inadequate response by the Diocese to allegations of sexual misconduct by the senior pastor. As a result, St. Paul’s parish leaders took a series of steps to distance the parish from PECUSA and the Diocese. St. Paul’s voted to withhold diocesan assessments, a determination it reaffirmed the following year. In 1996, St. Paul’s (i) ceased filing annual reports with the Diocese; and (ii) voted (by its then leaders and members present at a special meeting) to adopt new articles of organization and bylaws which omitted any statement of allegiance to the Diocese or PECUSA. St. Paul’s did not submit the new articles or bylaws to the Diocese for approval, and the Diocese took no action to approve them. The restated articles of organization were filed with the Secretary of the Commonwealth that year.
In 1998, the Diocese adopted a canonical amendment empowering it to reclassify as a mission any parish which had not paid in full its diocesan assessments and, pursuant to that authority, reclassified St. Paul’s as a mission. In early 1999, the diocesan bishop informed the congregation of St. Paul’s of the appointment of a new vicar, and the appointment of a number of individuals to serve on the mission’s executive committee in replacement of the former parish vestry. The bishop asked the former vestry members to turn over all keys, property, books, and records for St. Paul’s, but he received no response. Anticipating resistance to its efforts to gain control over the church property, the Diocese filed a lawsuit in an attempt to gain possession and control of the property. A trial court ruled that the Diocese and the leaders of St. Paul’s installed by the bishop were entitled to the control and use of St. Paul’s property, and prohibited the former parish leaders from interfering with such access and control. The case was appealed.
The appeals court ruled that it was not barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving this dispute. It acknowledged that the first amendment “prohibits civil courts from intervening in disputes concerning religious doctrine, discipline, faith, or internal organization.” However, the first amendment did not prohibit resolution of this dispute by the civil courts:
That we are without authority to intervene in a nonsecular dispute within a hierarchical religious organization does not mean that we are entirely without jurisdiction over the Diocese’s complaint …. It is one thing to defer to the determination of religious matters by ecclesiastical authorities, or even to decline jurisdiction over a request by dissident church members to reexamine or to set aside that determination. It is quite another to refuse jurisdiction over a request by the ecclesiastical authorities themselves for civil enforcement of their resolution of matters subjected, by church structure, to their control. Other courts have exercised jurisdiction within that limited scope where necessary to enforce ecclesiastical determinations within a hierarchical church.
The court further concluded that St. Paul’s held its property in trust for the Diocese and PECUSA as a result of PECUSA’s adoption, in 1979, of Canon I.6.4 in combination with the statement in the bylaws of St. Paul’s that it “accedes to the Canons of PECUSA.” Canon I.6.4 provides:
All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.”
Similarly, Canon I.6.5 states: “The several Dioceses may, at their election, further confirm the trust declared under the foregoing Section 4 by appropriate action, but no such action shall be necessary for the existence and validity of the trust.” Canon IV.3.6 prohibits the alienation or encumbrance of any property held by or for any parish without diocesan approval.
Application. The United States Supreme Court has recognized two approaches to resolving church property disputes without violating the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion: (1) the compulsory deference approach, and (2) the neutral principles of law approach. Under the compulsory deference approach, civil courts defer to the rulings of hierarchical church tribunals pertaining to the control of local church property. Under the neutral principles of law approach, civil courts apply “neutral,” nondoctrinal language in deeds, bylaws, and other applicable documents in resolving church property disputes. While many courts have applied the neutral principles approach to hierarchical churches, this case demonstrates that the compulsory deference rule is another option in resolving such disputes.
This case is also important in recognizing that denominations can resolve property disputes through the adoption of appropriate “trust” provisions in denominational canons or bylaws. These provisions will be given effect by the civil courts, especially where, as here, they are expressly adopted by affiliated churches in their own organizational documents. Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts v. Devine, 797 N.E.2d 916 (Mass. App. 2003).
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