by Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M., CPA

Church Property Disputes—Supreme Court Rulings

§ 7.02

1. WATSON V. JONES (1871)

A study of the law of church property disputes must begin with the United States Supreme Court's decision in Watson v. Jones,[1] 80 U.S. 679 (1871) [hereinafter cited as Watson]. for the methodology outlined in Watson has served as the basic framework for resolving such disputes for nearly a century and a half, and continues to exert considerable influence. In Watson, the Court was faced with the problem of determining which of two factions in the Third or Walnut Street Presbyterian Church of Louisville, Kentucky, which had split in 1863 over the slavery controversy, was entitled to ownership of the church property. The Court began its analysis by observing: "The questions which have come before the civil courts concerning the rights of property held by ecclesiastical bodies, may, so far as we have been able to examine them, be profitably classified under ...

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