• 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.
* A Connecticut court ordered a national church to return control of a local church to the congregation. In 1989 a pastor established a local church affiliated with a Protestant denomination (the “national church”). The pastor and church participated in various programs of the national church over the years. In 2001, an official of the national church visited the church in response to allegations that the pastor was conducting himself in an immoral manner. The pastor confessed, and was asked to resign. Officials from the national church conducted three membership meetings, in which members were informed that the pastor had resigned and that the finances and operations of the church were being handled by the national church. The membership of the local church ultimately voted not to accept the resignation of their pastor. The church later asked a court to issue an order requiring the national church to turn over control of the church’s assets and finances to it.
A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that “when a local church has associated itself with a general church to whose rule of matters temporal and spiritual it has submitted in conformity with prescribed requirements for such affiliation, the members who sever relations with the general church, repudiate the higher authorities and establish an independent church are not entitled to take the church property with them.” However, the court noted that from its inception, the members of the local church in this case “conducted the affairs of the church in accordance with their own customs and practice of governance. The local church has never, through its membership, accepted the control of the national church or its bylaws or regulations. It has held its real estate in its own name and not submitted its control or title to the national church. When the national church requested title of the property to be turned over to it, at a meeting and vote of the membership, this initiative was rejected.”
The court acknowledged the church’s participation in the national church’s regional conferences, monthly financial accounting and contributions to the national church, and the spiritual identity of the local church with the national church through its name and the ordination of its pastor. But, these facts did not in themselves determine “the rightful outcome here.” The local church “has always, from its inception, maintained its own independence in the holding of its property and the governance of its affairs; it has always perceived itself as an independent sovereign unit that had an association with the national church in spiritual matters.”
The court concluded, “The local church retained its sovereignty over its governance and control over its assets. It never surrendered to, or acknowledged the authority of the national church government over these issues …. The congregation has been supplanted from its church … it has been required to worship on nontraditional days to accommodate its place of temporary rental. On a recurring and continual basis, it has not had the use or enjoyment of the sanctuary it purchased, renovated and supported since its ownership. In balancing of the equities, the national church has not historically had a place of worship at the premises; its headquarters are in New York; those that represent the local church represent the majority of its membership, which is how it has historically governed itself; and, the national church has never been recognized by that majority membership, or controlling body of the local church as the hierarchal party in interest in the real estate. The local church has always recognized only itself as the owner and rightful occupant of the real estate; it has always governed itself by majority vote and the majority, representing the church itself has been ousted and seek to return to the church premises.”
The court ordered the national church to turn over possession of the church property to the church’s members, and return all of the church’s funds that it seized.
Application. The court concluded that “when a local church has associated itself with a general church to whose rule of matters temporal and spiritual it has submitted in conformity with prescribed requirements for such affiliation, the members who sever relations with the general church, repudiate the higher authorities and establish an independent church are not entitled to take the church property with them.” This principle did not apply in this case because the local church “retained its sovereignty over its governance and control over its assets” and “never surrendered to, or acknowledged the authority of the national church government over these issues.” Pentecostal Church of God v. Pentecostal Church of God International Movement, 2001 WL 1669383 (Conn. Super. 2002).
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