Is a dissident church or a religious denomination entitled to the church's property following its disaffiliation from the denomination? This important question was addressed by a Pennsylvania state appeals court.
In 1982, a church voted to disassociate from the Orthodox Church in America and to affiliate with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (the "Church Abroad") because of a proposed revision by the Orthodox Church in its calendar. The proposed revision altered the dates of several holy days (for example, Christmas was moved from January 7 to December 25). After the church's attempted disassociation, the Orthodox Church sought a court order requiring the church to turn over all of its assets to the parent denomination.
The state appeals court agreed with the the local congregation that such an order would be inappropriate. The court noted that the civil courts do have a role to play in some church disputes: "All disputes among members of a congregation … are not doctrinal disputes. Some are simply disputes as to meaning of agreements on wills, trusts, contracts, and property ownership." Such disputes, involving principles of civil law, may be resolved on the basis of "neutral principles of law" involving no intrustion "into the sacred precincts." However, "where the resolution of the issue involves questions of discipline, faith, ecclesiastical rule, custom or law, a civil court must defer to the highest church [tribunal] to which the question has been carried."
The court held that an award of a local church's assets to a parent denomination was possible only if the denomination could demonstrate "(1) an actual transfer of property from the congregation to the hierarchical church body, or (2) clear and unambiguous documentary evidence or conduct on the part of the congregation evincing an intent to create a trust in favor of the hierarchical church body."
The court observed that the denomination could not satisfy the first test, since the local congregation "never relinquished its right to possession or legal title to the church property." On the contrary, the church's original affiliation with the Orthodox Church was accompanied by a letter expressing its intent to retain ownership and control of its property.
As to the second requirement, the court observed, after reviewing the church's charter, constitution, bylaws, and the bylaws of the Orthodox Church, that none of these documents contained any "clear and unambiguous" language creating a trust in favor of the Orthodox Church.
The court also rejected the denomination's claim that its "hierarchical structure" compelled an award in its favor, since "regardless of the form of government of the church in question, we must examine the relevant deeds, contracts, or other evidence to determine ownership of the disputed property." Orthodox Church of America v. Pavuk, 538 A.2d 632 (Pa. Common. 1988)