Congregation Loses Property Upon Disaffiliation from Denomination

A local church may lose its property when it withdraws from its denomination.

In a similar case, the Kentucky Supreme Court correctly ruled that a pastor and majority of members in a local Cumberland Presbyterian Church forfeited their right to use and occupy church property when they voted to withdraw from the parent church.

In 1987, while the pastor was under investigation by the denomination, he agreed to resign his ministerial credentials in return for the dropping of all charges against him by the denomination. Shortly after the pastor's ministerial credentials were revoked, the church membership voted (58 to 26) to withdraw from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church denomination. At its next meeting, the local presbytery removed the local church's leadership and appointed a commission to oversee the affairs of the church.

The commission asked the former pastor and the church board to turn over all funds and records of the church. Upon their refusal to do so, the presbytery sought a court order prohibiting the former pastor from conducting worship services, requiring the former pastor and board to turn over church funds and records, and prohibiting the former pastor and the majority of church members who supported him from exercising any control over the church's building and properties.

A trial court refused to issue such an order, and the presbytery appealed. A state appeals court also refused to grant the relief the presbytery had requested, and the presbytery thereafter appealed the case to the state supreme court. The state supreme court reversed the lower courts' judgments, and ruled in favor of the presbytery. The court based its decision on the so-called "compulsory deference rule." The compulsory deference rule is one method the United States Supreme Court has approved for resolving church property disputes. It was described by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Watson v. Jones in 1871 as follows:

The case before us is one of this class, growing out of a schism which has divided the congregation and its officers, and the presbytery and synod, and which appeals to the courts to determine the right to the use of the property so acquired. Here is no case of property devoted forever by the instrument which conveyed it, or by any specific declaration of its owner, to the support of any special religious dogmas, or any peculiar form of worship, but of property purchased for the use of a religious congregation, and so long as any existing religious congregation can be ascertained to be that congregation, or its regular and legitimate successor, it is entitled to the use of the property.

In the case of an independent congregation we have pointed out how this identity, or succession, is to be ascertained, but in cases of this character we are bound to look at the fact that the local congregation is itself but a member of a much larger and more important religious organization, and is under its government and control, and is bound by its orders and judgments.

There are in the Presbyterian system of ecclesiastical government, in regular succession, the Presbytery over the session or local church, the Synod over the Presbytery, and the general assembly over all. These are called, in the language of the church organs, "judicatories," and they entertain appeals from the decisions of those below, and prescribe corrective measures in other cases …. In this class of cases we think the rule of action which should govern the civil courts, founded in a broad and sound view of the relations of church and state under our system of laws, and supported by a preponderating weight of judicial authority is, that, whenever the questions of discipline or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them.

The court also observed that the presbytery would prevail under the so-called "neutral principles" approach to resolving church property disputes. Under the neutral principles approach, church property disputes are resolved on the basis of neutral, nondoctrinal language in church deeds or bylaws, or denominational bylaws. The court noted that in the Jones v. Wolf decision in 1979 the United States Supreme Court urged denominations to avoid church property litigation through appropriate nondoctrinal provisions in deeds and bylaws. The Supreme Court observed:

At any time before the dispute erupts, the parties can ensure, if they so desire, that the faction loyal to the hierarchical church will retain the church property. They can modify the deeds or the corporate charter to include a right of reversion or trust in favor of the general church. Alternatively, the constitution of the general church can be made to recite an express trust in favor of the denominational church. The burden involved in taking such steps will be minimal. And the civil courts will be bound to give effect to the result indicated by the parties, provided it is embodied in some legally cognizable form.

The Kentucky Supreme Court noted that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church denomination amended its constitution in 1984 to include a provision subjecting all local church property to a trust in favor of the denomination. The amendment provides, in relevant part:

3.32 The Cumberland Presbyterian Church is a connectional church and all lower judicatories of the church to-wit: synod, presbytery, and the particular churches are parts of that body and therefore all property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of the particular church or of a more inclusive judicatory or retained for the production of income, and whether or not the deed to the property so states, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

3.33 Whenever property of, or held for, a particular church of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, ceases to be used by the church, as a particular church of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in accordance with this Constitution, such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred or sold as provided by the presbytery in which that particular church is located. 3.34 Whenever a particular church is formally dissolved by the presbytery, or has become extinct by reason of dispersal of its members, the abandonment of its work, or other cause, such property as it may have shall be held, used, and applied for such uses, purposes, and trusts as the presbytery in which said particular church is located may direct, limit, and appoint, or such property may be sold or disposed of as the presbytery may direct, in conformity with the Constitution of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

3.35 A particular church shall not sell, nor lease its real property used for purposes of worship, nurture or ministry, without the written permission of the presbytery in which the particular church is located, transmitted through the session of the particular church.

The court emphasized that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church denomination, by amending its constitution, had done precisely what the United States Supreme Court urged religious organizations to do in its 1979 ruling in Jones v. Wolf. That is, it adopted a nondoctrinal provision to resolve church property disputes without the need for civil court involvement. Cumberland Presbytery v. Branstetter, 824 S.W.2d 417 (Ky. 1992).

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