Church Property Ownership Dispute Between a Church and the National Denomination

a West Virginia appeals court awarded the assets of a schismatic congregation to a national denomination.

A local congregation that had been affiliated with the Original Glorious Church of God in Christ (the "national church") seceded from the national church, and established a new church. The church's trustees attempted to convey the church's assets to the new organization. This conveyance was challenged by the national church, which asserted that the church's assets belonged to it.

It cited a provision in the national church's constitution dictating that "no church group desiring to leave this body shall have any legal claim on church property if the property in question was purchased and paid for with general funds or if general funds were in any way used in the purchase thereof."

Since the national church produced a copy of a check in the amount of $300 that it had issued to the local church in 1964 to assist with church construction, the court concluded that the church's assets belonged to the national church and that the attempted conveyance by the local trustees was void.

This conclusion was reinforced by a state law specifying that "when an individual church has become extinct, or has dissolved, a suit may be instituted by the religious body that by the laws of the denomination to which such individual church belongs, has the charge or custody of the property, or in which it may be vested by the laws of the church."

The court further noted that with respect to hierarchical churches (such as the Original Glorious Church of God in Christ), the civil courts "should respect, and where appropriate enforce, the final adjudications of the highest church tribunals, provided that such adjudications are not procured by fraud or collusion. If a church has a hierarchical structure and its leaders have addressed a doctrinal or administrative dispute, the civil courts do not intervene, absent fraud or collusion."

Since the national church had addressed the issue of property disputes in its constitution (quoted above), the civil courts were bound to defer to that document and award the local congregation's assets to the national church. Finally, the court noted that title must be vested in the trustees of the national church, since under West Virginia law churches and religious denominations cannot incorporate or hold title to property in the name of the organization. The court's decision indicates that West Virginia has adopted the "compulsory deference" rule for resolving church property disputes.

This rule requires the civil courts to defer to the determinations of hierarchical church denominations in church property disputes. An alternative approach, approved by the United States Supreme Court, is the "neutral principles of law" approach, under which church property disputes are resolved on the basis of nondoctrinal language in deeds, state statutes, and the constitutions and bylaws of local congregations and national churches with which they are affiliated.

While most courts have adopted the neutral principles of law approach, the "compulsory deference" approach (adopted by the West Virginia court) has some appeal, since it avoids the prospect of a civil court resolving a church dispute on the basis of "neutral principles of law" despite a determination of a national church to the contrary. Original Glorious Church of God in Christ v. Myers, 367 S.E.2d 30 (W. Va. App. 1988).

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