Churches Can Lose Property Upon Leaving Denomination

Be informed before you vote to secede.

Key point: The property of a local church affiliated with a hierarchical denomination may revert to the denomination if the church votes to disaffiliate.

The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that title to a local Episcopalian church reverted to the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut following its vote to disaffiliate from the Diocese.

The church had been affiliated with the Diocese for more than a century, but voted to disaffiliate and join the Anglican Church in 1986. Both the church and Diocese claimed ownership of the church property, and a civil court was asked to resolve the controversy.

A trial court concluded that the constitution and canons of the Diocese, as well as the historical relationship between the church and Diocese, created a trust in favor of the Diocese on the property held by the local church. As a result, the Diocese was declared to be the rightful owner of the church's property. The church appealed this decision to the state supreme court, which also ruled in favor of the Diocese.

The supreme court began its decision by observing that the civil courts may resolve church property disputes so long as they do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine. The court interpreted decisions of the United States Supreme Court to permit the following approach to resolving church property disputes:

[I]n resolving ownership disputes over church property, a civil court must first determine whether an express trust exists, and if it does, the court must enforce its terms. If no express trust is found, the court must determine whether an implicit trust exists in favor of the general church. In conducting this inquiry, the court must examine the polity of the church, in addition to the church constitutions and its canons, for language of trust in favor of the general church. Inasmuch as the polity of the church represents the agreement of the church members in a particular system of government, including the structural allocation of authority, a civil court must ascertain the facts to determine whether members of a parish within a hierarchical church organization have agreed to be bound by the higher ecclesiastical authority within the church.

The court noted that the national Episcopal Church adopted the following provision at a national conference in 1979 creating an express trust over local church properties in favor of the national church: "All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any parish, mission or congregation is held in trust for this church and the diocese thereof in which such parish, mission or congregation is located." Because this provision was not adopted until 1979, the court concluded that it did not apply in this case since the church's properties were acquired long before 1979. However, the court noted that the next step was to determine whether or not an implied trust existed in favor of the Diocese:

[I]n determining whether the [local church members] and their predecessors had agreed to the manner in which their property would be held in regard to the Diocese, the trial court was required to determine whether there was, nonetheless, an implied trust. Where the nature of the relationship may, without entanglement in religious doctrine, be judicially determined by reference to the polity of the church, by its constitution and canons, and by the clear factual evidence regarding the historical subordinate relationship between the local church and the general church, there is no reason for a court not to enforce the terms of that relationship. If a trust has been implicitly acknowledged by the parties and is embodied in some legally cognizable form, it must be respected.

The court concluded that the polity of the Episcopal denomination and the historical relationship of local churches with the denomination clearly demonstrated an implied trust in favor of the Diocese over the property of local churches. The court based this conclusion on the following factors:

  • Local churches accepted the doctrine of the denomination.
  • The Diocesan canons permit the establishment of a church only with the permission of the bishop.
  • The Diocesan canons permit the disaffiliation of a local church from the diocese only with the permission of the bishop.
  • The Diocesan canons prohibit the transfer of local church property without the permission of the bishop.
  • The local church in this case submitted annual reports to the Diocese, as required by Diocesan canons.
  • The local church in this case sent delegates (both clergy and laypersons) to the annual conventions of the Diocese.
  • The local church in this case paid its annual assessments to the Diocese as required by Diocesan canons.

The court concluded that these factors "strongly reflect the polity of the church as one in which the parish is the local manifestation of [the denomination] to be used for its ministry and mission." Accordingly, the express trust provision adopted by the denomination in 1979 "merely codified in explicit terms a trust relationship that has been implicit in the relationship between local parishes and dioceses since the founding of [the national church] in 1789." The court concluded: "[T]he panoply of constitutional and canonical provisions of [the denomination] and the Diocese strongly indicate that the local church property was to be held for the benefit of the general church …."

This case is important, for it illustrates that ownership of local church properties may vest in a national church following a vote to disaffiliate from the national church if the polity and history of the national church suggest that an "implied trust" exists in its favor with respect to the properties of local churches. Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of Trinity-St. Michael's Parish, Inc. v. Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Connecticut, 620 A.2d 1280 (Conn. 1993).

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