Church Property – Part 3

A federal court in Maryland ruled that it could enforce the decisions of an Episcopal bishop regarding church property and the qualifications of a pastor.

Church Law and Tax 2002-11-01

Church Property

Key point 7-03.2. Some courts apply the "compulsory deference" rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in "hierarchical" churches. Under this rule, the civil courts defer to the determinations of denominational agencies in resolving such disputes.

* A federal court in Maryland ruled that it could enforce the decisions of an Episcopal bishop regarding church property and the qualifications of a pastor. A dispute arose between a bishop and a local congregation over the qualifications of a pastoral candidate (Father John). The bishop informed the congregation that Father John was not qualified for the position, and could not be hired. The congregation ignored this directive, and allowed Father John to conduct worship services. In response, the bishop attempted to visit the church to preside over a worship service. When she sought to enter the church, she was told by the board that while she could enter to worship, she could not conduct worship. As a result, the bishop and some 40 members exited the building and conducted a service on the church grounds. During this service, the bishop informed the members that she would be appointing an interim pastor until a permanent pastor could be found. The bishop asked a federal court to issue an order allowing her to be present at the church in question; recognizing her right to conduct worship services at the church; nullifying the purported "employment contract" between the church and Father John; and declaring that Father John was not the pastor of the church and was unlawfully occupying that status. The church and Father John insisted that the court did not have the authority to resolve an internal church dispute such as this.

The court, however, concluded that it did have the authority to resolve this dispute and provide the relief the bishop had requested. It based its decision squarely on a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). In the Milivojevich case, the Supreme Court observed that "where resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry by civil courts into religious law and polity, the [first amendment] mandates that civil courts shall not disturb the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal within a church of hierarchical polity, but must accept such decisions as binding on them, in their application to the religious issues of doctrine or polity before them." This principle is often called the "compulsory deference rule," meaning that the civil courts are compelled to defer to the decisions of the "highest ecclesiastical tribunal" of a hierarchical church on matters of doctrine or polity.

The Maryland court concluded that since the Episcopal Church is hierarchical, and the bishop was the highest ecclesiastical authority, her decisions concerning doctrine and polity had to be respected by the civil courts. It observed,

[The bishop] is the highest ecclesiastical authority of the [diocese]. She has made certain interpretations of canon law regarding her entitlement to access to and activities within [a church]. Even if her decisions regarding the number of times she may visit, preach the Word, and give communion were arbitrary … they were decisions for her, as Bishop, to make. The Court had and has no say in the matter. Similarly [she] has interpreted the canons relative to the calling of Father John. Even if her decision was arbitrary … the court would still have no say in the matter. By law, the court must defer to her decisions. On the other hand, given that [the bishop] has been denied access to the church, given that her entry into the church has been physically barred, that she has been told that she may not give communion and that she may not preach there, she is entitled to a remedy from the civil court, to assure her access. Similarly, given that Father John, supported by the [church board] holds himself out as [pastor] and officiating at services despite the bishop’s refusal to confirm him as [pastor], she is entitled to relief from the civil court.

Application. This case illustrates an important point—the civil courts will protect and enforce the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical authorities within hierarchical denominations on matters of doctrine or polity when those decisions are ignored or violated by affiliated churches or ministers. Dixon v. Edwards, 172 F. Supp.2d 702 (D. Md. 2001), aff’d, 290 F.3d 699 (4th Cir. 2002).

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