Florida Court Defers to Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine in Church Property Dispute

Appellate court says an existing relationship between a church and denomination prevents it from deciding a dispute.

A Florida appellate court ruled that the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” prevented it from deciding whether a local church or a parent denomination owned the church’s property.

Key point 7-03.2 Some courts apply the “compulsory deference” rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in “hierarchical” churches. Under this rule, the civil courts defer to the determinations of denominational agencies in resolving such disputes.

A man was ordained as a pastor by the Church of the Nazarene, and founded the “Iglesia Church,” (“Iglesia”) serving as its pastor.

The bylaws of Iglesia were the “Manual of the Church of the Nazarene” (“the Manual”), which is the governing document of the denomination.

In 2003, Iglesia sought to purchase property but could not qualify for a mortgage, so the district (a regional denominational agency) agreed to co-sign for the mortgage. Title to the property was then conveyed to the district at the sale closing.

By 2007, the district had been assessed over $1 million in fines for municipal code violations on the property. The district then recorded a warranty deed transferring title and fee simple ownership of the property to Iglesia.

Notably, the warranty deed’s language contained no restrictions or reversionary rights in favor of the district, and simply conveyed title to the property to Iglesia.

In 2014, Iglesia resolved to withdraw from the denomination, formalizing a corporate resolution stating that Iglesia would take all necessary action required by the Manual to withdraw. Specifically, the corporate resolution provided that, at a meeting of Iglesias’s corporate directors, the following action was authorized:

To take all necessary action required by the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene to withdraw Iglesia from the Church of the Nazarene including the execution of all documents [necessary] to meet all requirements necessary to complete the withdrawal.

Thereafter, the district voted to declare Iglesia a “church in crisis” per the Manual, to remove the names of the local church board members as the corporate officers, to appoint replacement persons as the local church’s governing board, and to transfer the subject property from Iglesia back to the district.

The church sued the district to establish its control over the church property. The district insisted the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” applied because of its hierarchical relationship with Iglesia. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is a court-made doctrine based on the First Amendment. It bars civil courts from resolving internal church disputes involving matters of governance and doctrine.

The district asserted that, pursuant to this doctrine, a civil court “cannot adjudicate who, within a church, is authorized to run that church,” and “to resolve the dispute of ownership of real property in this case, a court would necessarily need to decide which faction within the church controls it.”

The trial court acknowledged that if resolving the case required it to interpret provisions of the Manual—a matter reserved for the church—then that would be inappropriate.

When a United Pentecostal Church pastor in Texas fought to regain his post after resigning due to allegations of immoral behavior, he sued and lost in a case that shows how some courts define “church hierarchies” and apply the “deference rule” to those hierarchies.

The court also acknowledged that the issue of what occurred when the church was declared to be “in crisis,” and how the board was replaced, “presented circumstances very similar to cases in which the courts do not get involved, as such cases appear to relate to internal decisions dealing with subordinate churches.”

However, the trial court ruled in favor of the church. The trial court said it was irrelevant whether the church was hierarchical or not, and instead applied “neutral principles of Florida real estate and corporate law to real estate transactions between two nonprofit Florida corporations.”

The district appealed.

The appellate court’s ruling

On appeal, the district again contended that the trial court should have dismissed the lawsuit pursuant to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.

The appellate court, applying a “two-pronged inquiry” established by the US Supreme Court (Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1872)) as well as prior Florida court decisions, concluded first that the trial court failed to give proper deference to church authority. Applying such deference, the appellate court said “the trial court was obligated to defer to [the district’s] characterization of the Church of the Nazarene as hierarchical in nature and to recognize, as a matter of law, that it is a hierarchical church.”

Continuing the inquiry, the appellate court secondly concluded the record showed Iglesia “was affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene, and that its withdrawal from the Church of the Nazarene would need to meet the Manual’s requirements,” raising questions of governance, control, and process “subject to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”

The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to correctly apply the two-pronged inquiry based on Watson and Florida precedent.

What this means for churches

This case demonstrates the ways civil courts carefully examine relationships between local churches and denominational agencies. Because of constitutional considerations, courts are concerned whether the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine bars them from resolving church disputes.

Here, the trial court reached one conclusion based on its examination, only for the appellate court to conclude the trial court made a mistake. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applied.

Additionally, this case again shows how church property disputes can trigger questions about governance and control between local churches and denominational agencies. In general, the United States Supreme Court has approved two methods for resolving church property disputes.

The first approach is the “principle of government” approach (sometimes called the “compulsory deference” approach), “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.” (Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871)).

The second approach is called the “neutral principles of law” approach. Under this approach, the civil courts “rely upon provisions of state statutory law governing the holding of property by religious corporations, upon language in the deeds conveying the properties in question to the local church corporations, upon the terms of the charters of the corporations, and upon provisions in the constitution of the [national church] pertinent to the ownership and control of church property.” Md. & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Church, 396 U.S. 367 (1970).

Note two important points:

First, while a majority of courts have endorsed the “neutral principles approach,” many apply the “compulsory deference rule,” which allows denominations themselves to sort out and resolve controversies over the ownership of church property.

Second, even in states recognizing the neutral principles approach, there are at least three ways for denominational agencies to respond:

1. Denominational agencies can create trust provisions in their governing documents that are affirmatively accepted by affiliated churches. While the Florida court did not mention it, an argument can be made that churches in some cases do affirmatively consent to provisions in the governing documents of a parent denomination that seek to impose a trust on church property if, for example, churches and their representatives comprise some or all of the voting delegates at denominational meetings in which governing documents are adopted and amended.

Under these circumstances, which are common, denominational governing documents are not imposed unilaterally by the national church on affiliated churches. Rather, the churches themselves, by their delegates and representatives, adopt and amend the denominational governing documents at the official meetings of the denomination. This provides a compelling case of an affirmative assent by affiliated churches to the provisions of their denominational governing documents, but it is an argument that the Florida court failed to address, perhaps because it was not raised.

2. It is possible in some cases that church property is subject to an implied or resulting trust in favor of a denominational agency. Again, there must be an affirmative manifestation of intent by a church that its property is subject to such a trust.

3. In Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), the Supreme Court noted there may be cases where a denomination’s governing documents incorporate “religious concepts in the provisions relating to the ownership of property. If in such a case the interpretation of the instruments of ownership would require the civil court to resolve a religious controversy, then the court must defer to the resolution of the doctrinal issue by the authoritative ecclesiastical body.”  This means that it may be possible for the governing documents of national and regional churches to include provisions addressing ownership of local church property in a way that directly implicates religious doctrine. In such cases, the courts may be compelled to defer to the resolution of property disputes by the denominational authorities.

District Advisory Board v. Centro De Alabanza Oasis, 338 So. 3d 936 (Fla. App. 2022).

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