No Court Involvement in Church Property Dispute

Decision would involve intervening in ecclesiastical matters, court said.

Church Law and Tax 1993-05-01 Recent Developments

Church Property

Key point: Denominational bylaw provisions giving a denomination the authority to take control of the property of a local church if specified conditions occur will be upheld by the civil courts.

A New York court refused to interfere with a denomination’s decision to take control of a local church’s property pursuant to a provision in the denomination’s bylaws. The organizational documents of the Upstate New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America give the Synod the authority to take control of the property of a local church if the church’s membership or financial strength so decreases that control by the Synod is necessary to protect the church’s property from deterioration. Based on this authority, the Synod took control of the assets of a local church that had been damaged in a fire. This control extended to fire insurance proceeds. The church challenged the Synod’s actions in court. In upholding the Synod’s actions, the court noted that the church had discontinued worship services before the fire; the church was $26,000 in debt; the church’s endowment fund was completely exhausted; the church’s utilities had been disconnected on account of nonpayment; the denomination had provided considerable financial assistance to the church in the past, and had paid its insurance premiums. The court concluded that “these undisputed facts establish that the membership and financial strength of [the church] could not, as a practical matter, protect the property from waste and deterioration, and thus, that the Synod was entitled to a declaration that it is entitled to all right, title and interest in the property and assets of [the church].” The court rejected summarily the church’s allegation that the decrease in its membership and financial strength were a result of the Synod’s conduct in providing the church with pastors who were “inefficient and unable to lead the congregation,” thereby breaching the Synod’s “fiduciary duty” to the congregation. The court observed: “It is settled law that the civil courts should not intervene in ecclesiastical matters such as church governance even though rights to church property may be affected incidentally …. The constitutional documents of the Synod provide an internal procedure for the resolution of such disputes, a procedure never used by [the church]. In our view, consideration of the [church’s] allegations would require a civil court impermissibly to intervene in matters of church governance.” Upstate New York Synod v. Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, 585 N.Y.S. 919 (A.D. 4 Dept. 1992).

See Also: Title Awarded to Denominations

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