Church Property – Part 1

Church Law and Tax 1989-05-01 Recent Developments Church Property Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Church Law and Tax 1989-05-01 Recent Developments

Church Property

The Alabama Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a local church or a parent denomination owned the church’s property following its disaffiliation from the denomination. Here are the facts. A local church had been affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America since 1908. In 1985, a majority of the church’s membership voted to disaffiliate with the parent denomination. The denomination wrote the church a letter acknowledging the disaffiliation, and requesting all dissident members to vacate the premises. Dissident members refused to vacate the property, and the denomination filed a lawsuit seeking to have itself declared the owner of the church’s property. In support of its claim, the denomination quoted a provision contained (since 1884) in its Book of Discipline that pertained to local church property: “In trust, that said premises shall be used, kept, maintained, and disposed of as a place of divine worship for the use of the ministry and membership of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America, subject to the discipline, usage and ministerial appointments of said church as from time to time authorized and declared by the General Conference of said church.” A trial court awarded the church property to the local church, finding that the church was not in a hierarchical relationship with the denomination with respect to property matters. The denomination appealed to the state supreme court, which found the trial court’s determination to be “reversible error” and ruled in favor of the denomination. The court began its opinion by acknowledging that “the civil courts cannot adjudicate disputes concerning spiritual or ecclesiastical matters, but, nevertheless, can resolve disputes concerning property rights.” In resolving church property disputes, the courts of Alabama apply “neutral principles of law”—meaning nondoctrinal language in deeds, charters, and the constitutions and bylaws of both the local church and the parent denomination. The court surveyed the close ties that had existed between the local church and parent denomination in the 77 years of affiliation, and noted that since 1884 every prospective member of a church affiliated with the denomination had agreed to be “cheerfully governed” by the denomination’s Book of Discipline. In light of such evidence, the supreme court concluded: “[The church] has been a member of [the denomination] for three-quarters of a century, by an association that both the national denomination and the local church acknowledge. For the entire time, the Book of Discipline provided that the church’s property be held for the denomination by the local church. Individuals who have been members of the church the longest acknowledge that, for as long as they can remember, everyone who became a member of the church promised to abide by the rules and regulations of the denomination. The church cannot now sever the relationship between the denomination and itself and unilaterally declare that obligations incumbent upon itself because of three-quarters of a century of association do not exist. The church’s choice to join the denomination means it is obligated to obey all the rules and regulations its members promised to uphold, not just the rules and regulations they prefer. At least in regard to property disputes, the Book of Discipline binds the local church.” African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America, Inc. v. Zion Hill Methodist Church, Inc., 534 So.2d 224 (Ala. 1988).

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