Legal Intervention in Church Property Dispute

Court says it lacks authority to review denominational decision.

Church Law and Tax 1996-11-01

Church Property

Key point. Many courts apply the “neutral principles of law” approach in resolving disputes over the ownership of church property. However, the neutral principles of law approach cannot be used if it would require any inquiry into religious doctrine, polity, or practice.

An Illinois court ruled that it lacked the authority to review a state denominational agency’s decision that it had the authority to sell the property of a local church that had ceased to function as a church. A church became affiliated with the Illinois District of the Assemblies of God in 1963. The constitution of the District specifies that if the membership in an affiliated church falls to less than twelve members, then the church becomes “District supervised” and District officials become the church’s official board. The church’s bylaws specified that it the church ever “ceases to function as an Assemblies of God church, then the said property … shall revert to the Illinois District Council … [which] shall forthwith have full authority to use or dispose of the property at their discretion.” In 1979. the membership of the church in question fell to eight, and as a result it became a District supervised church. In 1989, the District officials comprising the board of the church determined that the church no longer was functioning as an Assemblies of God church, and they voted to close the church and sell its property. The property was sold in 1991. The next year, a lawsuit was filed by the few remaining members of the church, seeking to void the sale of their property. A trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and the members appealed. A state appeals court agreed with the trial court’s ruling, on two separate grounds.

First, it applied the so—called “compulsory deference” rule, under which the civil courts are compelled to “defer” to the judgments of hierarchical denominations regarding the status of affiliated church property. It relied on a 1974 decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in which the Court noted: “[W]here a local church is but a subordinate member of a superior general church organization, and has directly or impliedly consented to its form of government, the church is ordinarily bound by the decisions of the ecclesiastical judicatories. In these circumstances, the civil courts cannot, in the process of resolving property disputes between the local and the general church, independently determine questions properly within the sphere of ecclesiastical bodies.” Lowe v. First Presbyterian Church, 308 N.E.2d 801 (Ill. 1974).

Second, the court reached the same result applying the so—called “neutral principles of law” rule. The members asserted that the civil courts of Illinois have rejected the compulsory deference rule, and that the neutral principles of law rule must be applied. Under this rule, the civil courts can resolve church property disputes if they can do so by applying neutral principles of law to the bylaws of local congregations and denominational bodies, as well as other relevant documents. However, this rule cannot be applied in a way that requires any interpretation by a civil court of religious doctrine, polity, or practice. The District insisted that it was merely applying the provision in the church’s bylaws specifying that its property reverted to the District in the event that it ceased to function as an Assemblies of God church. Prior to selling the church’s property, the District officials (comprising the board of the church) determined that this condition had occurred. The remaining members vigorously disputed this, and claimed that they were still functioning both as a church and as an Assemblies of God church. They claimed that the civil court had the authority to determine that the District was without authority to sell the property since the church was still functioning as an Assemblies of God church. The court disagreed:

[T]he reversion clause in the [church] bylaws did not condition reversion of its property to the Illinois District Council on some objectively ascertainable fact, such as whether the Illinois District Council had decertified the [church] for affiliation with the Illinois District Council. Instead, the reversion of the [church’s] property was conditioned on the fact that [it] had “ceased to function as an Assemblies of God church.” It is not the province of a civil court to decide whether [the members] are still functioning as a church, or whether they are still functioning as an Assemblies of God church. That is an ecclesiastical matter, involving church doctrine, polity, and practice. Civil courts must abstain from resolving such a religious controversy and must instead defer to the decision of the highest church body to decide the issue. The Illinois District Council concluded the [church] had ceased to function as an Assemblies of God church. The civil courts will recognize that decision, and abstain from relitigating the issue.

Because the District Council determined that the church had ceased to function as an Assemblies of God church, it had the authority to sell its property. Clay v. Illinois District Council of the Assemblies of God, 657 N.E.2d 688 (Ill. App. 1995). [ State Court Rulings Regarding Church Property Disputes]

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