Church Property and Withdrawal from a Denomination

A local church may lose its property upon leaving its denomination.

A South Carolina appeals court ruled that a national church organization was entitled to the property of a local church that withdrew from the organization.

All of the members of a local church voted to withdraw from a parent religious denomination, and continued to use the church property. The national church sought a court order confirming that it was the lawful owner of the local church's property.

A trial court ruled in favor of the national church, finding that it was an hierarchical organization, and that its "decree book" (which was binding upon all local congregations) clearly specified that the national church owned all local church property.

The local church appealed, and a state appeals court ruled in favor of the national church. The court observed: "The governing body of a religious society may adopt a constitution and prescribe rules and regulations as to the government of the society and as to the discipline, worship and doctrine of the group.

Such constitution, rules, and regulations are obligatory among the members, congregations and officers of such societies and are given effect by the civil courts so long as they are reasonable and not inconsistent with or repugnant to the laws of the land, and so long as they are conformable and subordinate to the charter of the society where incorporated." The local church was bound by the provision in the national church's "decree book" specifying that all local church properties belonged to the national church. The court further explained:

The main issue of this case is whether when the congregation of an hierarchical church withdraws from the church, the congregation is entitled to the church property. The well-settled answer to this question is that the title and right of possession of the church property remains in the hierarchical church …. The South Carolina appellate courts have yet to face a situation in which the congregation as a whole withdrew and contended that the church property belonged to it.

The law on this question is settled. The South Carolina Supreme Court has held that when a church splits, the courts will not undertake to inquire into the ecclesiastical acts of the several parties, but will determine the property rights in favor of the party or division maintaining the church organization as it previously existed. We accordingly hold that when the entire congregation withdraws from the hierarchical church, the title to the church property remains in the church and does not follow the congregation …. Accordingly, we affirm the trial judge's holding that [the officers of the national church] are entitled to the beneficial use of the church property, including the right of possession and the right of control of the property. Dillard v. Jackson, 403 S.E.2d 136 (S.C. App. 1991).

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