Pastor, Church & Law

State and Lower Federal Court Rulings

§ 7.03

How have state and lower federal courts resolved church property disputes since Jones? A few courts have repudiated the neutral principles approach approved by the United States Supreme Court in Jones, and have adopted a rule of compulsory deference by the courts to the determinations of ecclesiastical commissions or judicatories in church property disputes, whether or not religious doctrine is implicated.45 Townsend v. Teagle, 467 So.2d 772 (Fla. App. 1985); Fonken v. Community Church, 339 N.W.2d 810 (Iowa 1983) (rejecting the claim that “the compulsory deference approach is applicable only to purely ecclesiastical matters”); Calvary Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of Lake Huron, 384 N.W.2d 92 (Mich. App. 1986); but cf. Bennison v. Sharp, 329 N.W.2d 466 (Mich. App. 1982); Tea v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 610 P.2d 181 (Nev. 1980); Protestant Episcopal Church v. Graves, 417 A.2d 19 (N.J. 1980), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 1131 (1981); Southside Tabernacle v. Pentecostal Church of God, Pacific Northwest District, Inc., 650 P.2d 231 (Wash. 1982); Original Glorious Church of God in Christ v. Myers, 367 S.E.2d 30 (W. Va. App. 1988); Church of God v. Noel, 318 S.E.2d 920 (W. Va. 1984) (dissenting justice urged adherence to Jones). But see Antioch Temple, Inc. v. Parekh, 422 N.E.2d 1337 (Mass. 1981).However, a majority of courts have either adopted the principle of Jones that the compulsory deference rule is limited to issues of “religious doctrine or polity,”46 See, e.g., Graffam v. Wray, 437 A.2d 627 (Me. 1981); Beaver-Butler Presbytery v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, 489 A.2d 1317 (Pa. 1985).or have applied a neutral principles approach to the resolution of church property disputes involving hierarchical churches.47 See, e.g., Harris v. Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, Inc., 457 So.2d 385 (Ala. 1984); Bishop and Diocese of Colorado v. Mote, 716 P.2d 85 (Colo. 1986); New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church v. Fisher, 438 A.2d 62 (Conn. 1980); Aglikin v. Kovacheff, 516 N.E.2d 704 (Ill. App. 1987); York v. First Presbyterian Church, 474 N.E.2d 716 (Ill. App. 1984); Grutka v. Clifford, 445 N.E.2d 1015 (Ind. App. 1983); First Presbyterian Church v. United Presbyterian Church in U.S., 476 N.Y.S.2d 86 (N.Y. 1984); Orthodox Church of America v. Pavuk, 538 A.2d 632 (Pa. Common. 1988); Foss v. Dykstra, 319 N.W.2d 499 (S.D. 1982); Templo Ebenezer, Inc. v. Evangelical Assemblies, Inc., 752 S.W.2d 197 (Tex. App. 1988).A few courts continue to adhere to the “implied trust” doctrine that was repudiated by the Supreme Court in Hull.48 For example, a New York court ruled in 1985 that the “implied trust” doctrine may be used to the extent that it “involves no interpretation of religious doctrine.” It observed that “if the original precepts of a church were known, uncontested and unambiguous, then those precepts could form the basis of a doctrinal trust to which claimants to that church’s property must be faithful.” Park Slope Jewish Center v. Stern, 491 N.Y.S.2d 958 (N.Y. App. 1985).Such cases illustrate that diversity will characterize states’ solutions to these intractable problems. Representative state court rulings are summarized below.49 See also Pentecostal Church of God v. Pentecostal Church of God International Movement, 2001 WL 1669383 (unpublished decision, Conn. Super. 2002) (court ordered a national church to return control of a local church to the congregation);

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