Key point 7-03.01. The civil courts resolve disputes over the ownership and control of property in a “congregational” church on the basis of one of the following principles: (1) the provisions of an express trust, if any; (2) the application of neutral principles of law involving no inquiry into church doctrine; (3) state laws governing the disposition of church property; or (4) a majority vote of the church membership.
The courts have resolved property disputes in “congregational” churches by resorting to (1) the express trust rule, (2) the neutral principles of law rule, (3) state laws governing the disposition of church property, or (4) majority rule. The express trust and neutral principles rules are similar in their application, since both determine title on the basis of nondoctrinal provisions contained in a local church’s deed, or the charters or bylaws of the church or a denomination with which it is affiliated. The express trust rule focuses on language creating a trust either in favor of the local church or a denomination. The neutral principles approach looks to nondoctrinal language in deeds, charters, and bylaws to determine who holds legal title. A few states have statutes that attempt to resolve church property disputes. In some cases, these rules do not clearly identify the owner of church property. In such cases, the courts have consistently (since Jones) resorted to majority rule, meaning that a majority of members within the church determines the question of property ownership.