• 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.
State Court Rulings Regarding Church Property Disputes
* A Georgia court concluded that a local church’s attempt to disaffiliate from a parent denomination failed because the church did not comply with procedural requirements specified in the denomination’s constitution. A church formally affiliated with a denomination (national church) in 1998. A few years later charges were leveled against the church’s pastor and his wife in connection with certain statements she was alleged to have made in violation of the national church’s policy. Following notice and a hearing on these charges, the pastor was terminated as pastor and a member of the local church. The next day the pastor withdrew $3,500 from an account held in the name of the church. The church filed a lawsuit against the former pastor seeking to recover these funds as well as other property belonging to the church. The pastor’s defense was that a majority of the church membership voted to disaffiliate from the denomination and form an independent church, and therefore the former church had no basis to bring the lawsuit.
A state appeals court noted that the national church’s constitution provides that affiliation with the national church is voluntary and that a local church may withdraw its affiliation “provided withdrawal is a result of a majority vote of members in a duly called church meeting.” The constitution further provides that an official of the national church is to be invited to participate in that meeting “for the express purpose of presenting a case for continual affiliation.” The court concluded, “A valid withdrawal from the national church, therefore, requires a formal meeting of local church members with the attendance of a national church official, and a vote of the majority. The affidavits submitted by the pastor, however, which purport to establish that the church had withdrawn from its association with the national church, do not assert that any formal meeting ever took place or that any national church representative was in attendance. And as the church points out the pastor had no affiliation with the church and thus could neither call nor moderate any such meeting. Accordingly, we find that the evidence presented by the pastor fails to establish that any valid withdrawal from the church could have occurred, and thus the trial court correctly found as a matter of law that the church property belonged to that faction of the church that retained its affiliation with the national church.”
Application. The governing documents of some denominations contain procedures that affiliated churches must follow in order to sever their affiliation. As this case illustrates, if such procedures are not followed then an attempted disaffiliation may be null and void. Pritchett v. Wesleyan Pentecostal Church, (Ga. App. 2004).
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