• Key point. Civil courts can resolve church disputes over ownership and control of church property so long as they can do so on the basis of neutral principles of law requiring no inquiry into religious doctrine or polity.
A New York court ruled that the civil courts could resolve a dispute between a religious organization and a spin—off congregation over use of property. A majority of the members of a synagogue voted to grant women equal rights in religious services. A number of members opposed this action, and formed their own congregation. A few months later the majority sought a court order banning the dissidents from the property. This litigation was resolved by a “stipulation” or agreement between the factions which (1) recognized that the majority retained ownership of the property; (2) allowed the majority to conduct religious services in the main sanctuary; (3) allowed the dissidents to conduct religious services in a smaller sanctuary in the same building; (4) required the dissidents to pay the majority group $460 per month for their use of the smaller sanctuary. Several years later, the majority sued the dissidents again, this time to collect “back rent” for 72 months and to have the dissidents “ejected” for their failure to pay rent. A trial court, and state appeals court, both ruled that the dispute was “religious” in nature and could not be resolved by the civil courts. The New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court in New York) disagreed on the basis of its earlier decision in First Presbyterian Church v. United Presbyterian Church, 476 N.Y.S.2d 86 (1984). In the First Presbyterian decision, the court was faced with a dispute between a local church and a parent denomination over ownership of the church’s property. It recognized that the civil courts may resolve church property disputes if they can do so “without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine.” It adopted the so—called “neutral principles of law” analysis to resolving such disputes. Under this analysis the civil courts “focus not only on the language of instruments such as deeds, but also on such factors as the terms of the local church charter, the state statutes governing the holding of church property, and the provisions in the constitution of the general church concerning ownership and control of church property, as long as the courts take special care to scrutinize the documents in purely secular terms and not to rely on the religious precepts in determining whether they indicate that the parties have intended a particular result.”
The court applied the “neutral principles” analysis to the dispute involving the synagogue, and concluded that the matter could be resolved under this analysis:
The dispute in the present case can similarly be resolved by the application of neutral principles of laws. No doctrinal issue need be passed upon, no implementation of a religious duty is contemplated, and no interference with religious authority will result.
Application. The important feature of this case is the court’s reaffirmation that it will apply the “neutral principles” approach to resolving church property disputes in New York. This means that the civil courts will be willing to resolve such disputes so long as they can do so on the basis of neutral principles of law requiring no inquiry into religious doctrine or polity. The United States Supreme Court has recognized that the first amendment permits a number of different approaches to resolving these disputes. One approach that is recognized in some states is the “compulsory deference rule.” Under this rule the civil courts defer to the decisions of denominational agencies regarding ownership of church property. This approach was rejected by the New York court. Park Slope Jewish Center v. Congregation B’Nai Jacob, 664 N.Y.S.2d 236 (Ct. App. 1997).
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