Court Concluded that Denomination Controlled Church Property

A Pennsylvania state appeals court resolved a controversy between a local church and a Synod regarding ownership of church property and who would serve as pastor of the church.

For many years, Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church was governed by its own constitution and bylaws as well as those of its regional Synod and the Lutheran Church of America (LCA). During the latter part of 1983, a division arose within the congregation because of participation by its pastor (Rev. Roth) in an organization formed to deal with the plight of unemployed workers in the area.

The Synod investigated the problems at the church and recommended certain actions in an effort to reunite the congregation. When the two factions within the church could not agree upon these recommendations, the Synod vacated the pulpit and appointed another pastor to serve. When the church refused to recognize the Synod's designated pastor, the Synod sought and received a court order forbidding the performance of any further pastoral functions at the church by Rev. Roth. Despite the court order, Rev. Roth continued to act as pastor, which resulted in his being jailed for contempt of court.

Nevertheless, Rev. Roth continued to dictate sermons which were read to the congregation. In addition, church board members transferred $9,500 out of a church bank account to their own personal accounts, and reduced the church's insurance coverage by 70%.

Because of these actions, the Synod declared the church "defunct," and, pursuant to the LCA constitution, ordered the board to transfer all church assets to the Synod. The board refused to comply with this request (some board members locked themselves in the church basement), and the Synod obtained another court order citing the board for contempt of court and ordering them to convey all church properties to the Synod.

The board members were "conditionally" jailed for between 30 and 60 days, with the understanding that they would be released immediately upon their willingness to comply with the court's orders.

A Pennsylvania state appeals court affirmed the lower court's orders. Specifically, it held that:

  1. The lower court did not exceed its authority in confining the pastor or board members for contempt of court.
  2. The incarceration of the pastor and board members was a "conditional commitment to achieve compliance with a court order" and as such was civil rather than criminal in nature. Accordingly, there was no requirement for a jury trial.
  3. The lower court's orders upholding the Synod's rulings (declaring the pulpit vacant and ordering all church properties transferred to the Synod) did not violate the church's constitutional guaranty of religious freedom, since "the members of Trinity are free to practice their religion as they see fit and to express themselves in any manner, so long as they do not interfere with the Synod's use of the church …."
  4. Civil courts must defer to the decision of ecclesiastical organizations involving questions of discipline, faith, or ecclesiastical rules, except in those cases where an ecclesiastical organization "fails to follow its own rules and procedures."
  5. The constitution of the LCA gave churches the right to appeal determinations of a Synod to the "annual convention of the Synod." Since there was evidence that the church had appealed the Synod's rulings to the "convention of the Synod," and that the appeal was never heard, the court ordered the trial court to determine whether or not an appeal had in fact been filed and if so whether or not it was properly heard.

    If the Synod failed to follow the LCA constitution, then the civil courts need not defer to its rulings. Regardless of whether one agrees with the result in this case, the fact remains that the Pennsylvania appeals court ignored the clear and binding pronouncement of the United Stated Supreme Court in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976), that the civil courts are bound to defer to the determinations of ecclesiastical organizations involving questions of doctrine or polity even if those determinations are arbitrary in the sense that they fail to adhere to the organization's own internal rules.

    The Supreme Court's ruling has been criticized by many as encouraging irresponsible conduct by religious organizations. Nevertheless, it remains the law of the land and the Pennsylvania appeals court erred in ignoring it. Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church v. May, 537 A.2d 537 (Pa. Common. 1988)

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