Court Ruled Church’s Property Belonged to the Parent Denomination Because of Nondoctrinal, Controlling Language in Both the Local Church’s Deed and in the Denomination’s Bylaws

A Texas state appeals court resolved a church property dispute in which a denomination and

A Texas state appeals court resolved a church property dispute in which a denomination and a local church both claimed title to the church's property.

The church was established in 1970, and in the same year was affiliated with the Evangelical Assemblies denomination. Pursuant to the Evangelical Assemblies' constitution, the church paid for its property but title was vested in the name of the denomination. In 1983, a majority of the church's members voted to disassociate the church from the denomination, whereupon a lawsuit was commenced to determine legal ownership of church property. The appeals court held that the result in such a case depends upon whether the church and denomination are "hierarchical" or "congregational" in polity.

The court noted that Texas decisions had established the following factors which indicate that a particular church is "hierarchical" in nature: (1) affiliation with a parent church; (2) an ascending order of ecclesiastical judicatories in which the government of the local church is subject to review and control by higher authorities; (3) subjugation of the local church to the jurisdiction of a parent church or to a constitution promulgated by a parent church; (4) a charter from the parent church governing the ownership of local church property and specifying ownership of local church property; (5) the repository of legal title; and (6) the licensing or ordination of local ministers by the parent church.

Application of these factors led to the conclusion that the Evangelical Assemblies was "in every respect" a hierarchical church organization, and accordingly, "as the parent church, Evangelical Assemblies owns and is entitled to possession of the property under the mutually binding constitution." The Texas court reached the correct result, but for the wrong reason.

A determination of whether a church or denomination is congregational or hierarchical in nature is not required unless the court chooses to apply the "compulsory deference" rule, under which the courts are compelled to defer to the rulings of denominational agencies within a hierarchical denomination. Texas, like most states, has rejected the compulsory deference rule in church property disputes in favor of the "neutral principles of law" approach under which the civil courts determine the ownership of contested church property through nondoctrinal language in controlling legal documents (e.g., the local church's deed, or the bylaws of either the local church or parent denomination).

Obviously, under a proper application of the neutral principles approach, title to the church's property belonged to the Evangelical Assemblies—because of nondoctrinal, controlling language in both the local church's deed and in the denomination's bylaws. Templo Ebenezer, Inc. v. Evangelical Assemblies, Inc., 752 S.W.2d 197 (Tex. App. 1988).

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