Church Property Dispute

Court rules that local congregation, not national church, has right to property.

Key point. The property of a local church affiliated with a hierarchical denomination may revert to the denomination if the church votes to disaffiliate.

A South Carolina court ruled that a national church retained title to the property of a local congregation that voted to disaffiliate from the parent organization. The local church conceded that the national church was hierarchical in nature, but it asserted that it never became a part of this structure but rather operated as an independent congregation. The court disagreed:

Since its inception as a missions church, the local congregation consistently sent delegates to the national church's annual convention and submitted annual reports to the national church. The national church contributed $5,000 to the local congregation to help construct the church building. The current minister of the local church was appointed by the bishop of the national body at its annual convention. Finally, by letter … the entire local congregation submitted its resignation from the national church, evidencing that the members of the local congregation considered themselves members of the national church.

The court concluded:

The law is well settled 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. 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. In this case, the title to the property at issue remained with the national church, and title is in the trustees, who are under a duty of loyalty to act solely in the best interest of the national church.

What this means for churches

This case illustrates an important point—while no court would dispute the authority of a local congregation to disaffiliate from a national church, many courts have ruled that such a congregation does not necessarily have the right to retain ownership of the church property. This is a complex legal question that should be thoroughly researched before any decision is made to withdraw from a national church organization. Fire Baptized Holiness Church of God of the Americas v. Greater Fuller Tabernacle Fire Baptized Holiness Church, 475 S.E.2d 767 (S.C. App. 1996).

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