Key point 7-04. Churches and denominational agencies can avoid church property disputes by adopting appropriate nondoctrinal language in deeds, trusts, local church bylaws, or denominational bylaws.
A South Carolina court ruled that the property of a church that voted to disaffiliate from a parent denomination belonged to the denomination as a result of provisions in the denomination's bylaws.
In 1988 an Assembly of God church established a mission church (the "church") as an outreach to another area of the community. The church initially met in various locations, including a daycare center and theater. It purchased property in 1994 on which it later built a worship facility. According to the Article XI, section 2(a) of the Constitution of the South Carolina District Council of the Assemblies of God, "groups of believers which are still in the formative stages shall be recognized as District Affiliated Assemblies" and "shall be under the supervision of the District Presbytery which shall serve as trustees thereof."
This section further provides that "District Affiliated Assemblies which have matured sufficiently to accept their full share of responsibility for the maintenance of scriptural order, shall be entitled to recognition as autonomous General Council affiliated churches." The term "General Council" refers to the national Assemblies of God church.
In 1999, the church, having formerly been under the supervision of the South Carolina District Council of the Assemblies of God successfully applied for affiliation with the General Council.
While the church initially supported district-wide activities sponsored and planned by the District Council, its involvement in these programs began to decline in 2002. In 2003, the District Superintendent wrote the church expressing his concerns about the decreased participation. The church responded with a letter renouncing all ties to the Assemblies of God. The letter stated that the church would hold a business meeting to discuss changes in its bylaws, including a vote by the congregation regarding a proposed change in affiliation. With this letter the pastor enclosed his license as an Assemblies of God minister.
Before the District Council received this letter, however, the pastor had already met with members of the church board about his intended change in affiliation, consulted a lawyer about whether the congregation could keep the worship facility if they followed him, and announced to the congregation that he was leaving the Assemblies of God to join another group. He assured the congregation that "this building belongs to us. The district had nothing to do with this."
After reviewing the pastor's actions, the District Council no longer considered him to be "a credentialed minister in good standing," a condition necessary for the church's continued affiliation with the General Council. Several current and former church members sent letters to the District Council expressing their dismay about the pastor's plans to disaffiliate the church from the Assemblies of God. Notwithstanding these complaints, the pastor convened a business meeting at which the congregation voted sixty-three to three to leave the Assemblies of God. Thereafter, the District Council initiated formal disciplinary proceedings against the pastor; and the General Council stripped him of his credentials to serve as a minister in the Assemblies of God.
Since the vote to disaffiliate, the church continued to occupy and possess the property. The District Council and three members of the congregation who remained loyal to the Assemblies of God (the "plaintiffs") asked a court to determine the status of the church's property in light of its purported disaffiliation. A trial court ruled that the District Council controlled the church property. It relied on Article VI, Section 5 of the General Council bylaws, which provides:
If a General Council affiliated church is unable to meet any of the criteria for affiliation as set forth in the Constitution, Article XI, Section 1, paragraph a, it shall seek the assistance of the District officers for help in maintaining the minimal requirement for General Council affiliation. The District may use any means prescribed by its bylaws to assist the church in returning to a position of strength. If the minimal requirements have not been attained, the church shall revert to District affiliated status until the minimal requirements for General Council affiliation have been attained.
The court noted that one of the criteria for affiliation spelled out in the constitution was "a credentialed minister in good standing" with the Assemblies of God. Since this requirement was no longer met after the District Council revoked the pastor's credentials, the church automatically reverted to District affiliated status, meaning that the District Council was in charge of church property and governance. The court stressed that Article VI, Section 5, states that "if the minimal requirements [for affiliation of a local church with the General Council] have not been attained, the church shall revert to District affiliated status until the minimal requirements for General Council affiliation have been attained."
A state appeals court agreed with the trial court's conclusions: "Based on [Article VI, Section 5, of the General Council bylaws] and the absence of 'a credentialed minister in good standing' with the General Council, we hold the trial court correctly found [the church] had reverted to district-affiliated status and, pursuant to Article VII, section 1(b) of the bylaws of the South Carolina District Council, was thus required to 'conduct all its business in accordance with the Constitution and Bylaws for District Affiliated Assemblies as provided by the South Carolina District Council.'" Because the church had become a district-affiliated church, the District Council was entitled to its assets upon the congregation's decision to leave the Assemblies of God. In support of its finding, the court cited Article XI, section 1(b) of the Constitution and Bylaws for District Affiliated Assemblies in Affiliation with the South Carolina District Council of the Assemblies of God, which provides as follows:
In the event this local assembly should at any time cease to function as an Assemblies of God church under the jurisdiction of the South Carolina District Council of the Assemblies of God … then the tangible property belonging to said church, real or personal, and all the interest of said church, real or equitable, in any and all property shall be and thereupon become the property of the South Carolina District of the Assemblies of God.
The court concluded: "Under the above-quoted provisions, when the congregation voted to disaffiliate from the Assemblies of God, it ceased to function as an Assemblies of God church under the jurisdiction of the District Council and the church property thereupon [became] the property of the South Carolina District of the Assemblies of God."
The church argued that according to Article VI, Section 5, of the General Council bylaws, a reversion did not immediately follow from a church's failure to meet the affiliation requirements. The court disagreed: "The plain and unambiguous language of the bylaw, however, undermines that argument. Nowhere does the bylaw prescribe an amount of time that must pass before a reversion can occur."
Finally, the church contended that the court should have resolved this dispute on the basis of a "neutral principles of law" analysis that is commonly used in the resolution of church property disputes. Under this analysis, the civil courts apply neutral principles of law involving no inquiry into church doctrine in resolving church property disputes.
Generally, this means applying neutral legal principles to nondoctrinal language in any one or more of the following documents: (1) deeds to church property; (2) a church's corporate charter; (3) a state law addressing the resolution of church property disputes; (4) church bylaws; or (5) a parent denomination's bylaws.
The court noted that "to the extent this argument applies to the trial court's determination that the church's property reverted to the District Council upon its attempted secession from the Assemblies of God, we note that under the neutral principles of law doctrine, if the resolution of a church property dispute requires the interpretation of a religious doctrine as stated in a constitution, then a civil court hearing the case must defer to the authoritative ecclesiastical body's interpretation of that doctrine. Because the dispute in this case required such an interpretation, the trial court properly deferred to the opinions of the officials of the District Council and the General Council about the changes in the status of the church and the pastor's status as a credentialed minister in good standing." South Carolina District Council of Assemblies of God v. River of Life International Worship Center, 643 S.E.2d 104 (S.C. App. 2007).