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.
* The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a national church controlled the property of a local church that desired to separate from the national church, as a result of a provision in the governing documents of the national church. A national church filed a lawsuit seeking to oust an affiliated congregation from the property it occupied. The national church alleged that the local church had been affiliated with it for over 30 years, and therefore, was subject to its bylaws, articles of faith, and disciplinary rules, which provided in pertinent part: “The [national church] shall hold all church property, regardless if all members vote to change the church to some other faith.” The national church maintained that certain actions by the local church manifested an intent to disaffiliate from the national church, and since the property used and occupied by the church was the property of the national church, the local church should be ejected. In particular, the national church asserted that the local church had failed to make the required monetary contributions to the national church and to send delegates to two annual meetings; that the church had voted to “come out of” the national church; and that within the last two or three years, the church had voted to change its name. The church insisted that the national church did not have the right to control local church property. A trial court dismissed the case after concluding that it involved the purely ecclesiastical question of whether or not the local church was affiliated with the national church.
The state supreme court ruled that the civil courts could resolve the issue of who controlled the church’s property. It concluded,
It is beyond cavil that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion includes the authority of religious bodies to make their own decisions, free from state interference, in matters of church government, faith and doctrine… . But that is not what the trial court was required to do here. The trial court focused on the question of the church’s continuing membership in the [national church] and whether such question was a matter for internal resolution. However, the pivotal issue is not present church membership, but rather who has control over the real property used by the church… . In this case, it is undisputed that the [national church] remains a hierarchy, that the local church has been a member of the national church for over thirty years, and that the church is subject to the national church’s discipline. Such discipline unquestionably provides that the national church “shall hold all church property,” thereby implying a trust for the benefit of the national church. And this is irrespective of the church’s continuing membership in the national church. Thus, the trial court erred in dismissing the national church’s complaint on the basis that the church’s membership in the national church was a matter outside its authority, and in failing to find, as a matter of law, that the national church is in control of the church property.
Application. This case illustrates that national or regional denominational agencies can maintain control over the property of affiliated congregations through properly drafted provisions in their governing documents. Holiness Baptist Association v. Barber, 552 S.E.2d 90 (Ga. 2001).
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