Key point 7-03.03. Most courts apply the “neutral principles of law” rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in “hierarchical” churches. Under this rule, 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.
Most state courts have adopted the neutral principles of law approach in resolving church property disputes involving hierarchical churches. The cases validate the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Jones that “under the neutral principles approach, the outcome of a church property dispute is not foreordained.”56 Id. at 603-04.Both local churches and denominations have been awarded title to contested church property by courts applying the neutral principles approach. Representative cases are summarized below.
1. TITLE AWARDED TO LOCAL CHURCHES
A number of courts, applying the neutral principles of law approach, have awarded property to local churches that have disaffiliated from a denomination. Some courts have rejected provisions in a denomination’s governing documents imposing a trust on all property of affiliated churches in favor of the national church on the ground that local churches never “accepted” them or had the authority reject them. To illustrate, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a church that withdrew from the national Episcopal Church retained control of its property in a dispute with the national church. The denomination argued that Canons I.7.4 (often referred to as the “Dennis Canon”) and I.7.5 specified that all property of affiliated churches was held in trust for the national church, and that these provisions constituted “neutral principles of law” that the civil courts had to apply in resolving the case.
The court rejected these arguments and ruled that the dissident church held title to its property free of any trust. The court noted that the national church “did not cite Texas law to support their argument that under the record before us [the church] was precluded from revoking any trusts actually or allegedly placed on its property.”57 Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas, 422 S.W.3d 594 (Tex. 2013).But other courts have concluded that this analysis is flawed. To illustrate, the Virginia Supreme Court has noted: “The triennial General Convention, the highest governing body of the Episcopal Church, adopts … the constitution and canons. The General Convention is composed of representatives from each diocese. The legislative body of each diocese (referred to in Virginia as the Annual Council) selects the representatives that are sent to the General Convention. The Annual Council is composed of representatives from each of the churches and other congregations within the Diocese. Thus, it is clear that each canon, including the Dennis Canon, is enacted through a process resembling a representative form of government.” This is the point that was missed by the Texas Supreme Court finding that the Dennis Canon could not serve as the basis for resolving a property dispute between the Episcopal Church and a dissident congregation since the congregation never explicitly assented to it.58 Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church, 740 S.E.2d 530 (Va. 2013).
- The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a local church maintained ownership of its property following its disaffiliation from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church since it had acquired title prior to the effective date of an amendment in the national church’s governing document imposing a trust in its favor over the property of all affiliated churches. The court rejected the national church’s argument that a 1984 constitutional amendment imposed a trust in its favor on the property of all local churches. It pointed out that all of the church’s property had been acquired prior to the 1984 amendment, and noted that the national church cited no cases “that allow a grantor to impose a trust upon property previously conveyed without the retention of a trust. … We have long held that parties to a conveyance have a right to rely upon the law as it was at that time.”59 Arkansas Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church v. Hudson, 40 S.W.3d 301 (Ark. 2001).
- An Illinois state appeals court awarded ownership of church property to a local church that had disaffiliated from the American-Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox Church. The appeals court chose to apply the “neutral principles” approach and accordingly concluded that it was not compelled to rule in favor of the national church.60 Aglikin v. Kovacheff, 516 N.E.2d 704 (Ill. App. 1987).The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the PCUSA Book of Order by which all church property is held in trust for the PCUSA was not enforceable. The court concluded that the attempt by the PCUSA to impose an express trust on the property of affiliated churches was ineffective since it failed to comply with the requirements of Indiana trust law. Under Indiana law: “An express trust must be evidenced by a writing signed by the owner of the property. … Such heightened proof is necessary to protect the sanctity of property ownership against trust claims not intended by the owner.” However, the court concluded that it was possible that churches held property subject to an “implied” trust in favor of the PCUSA, and it remanded the case back to the trial court for consideration of this claim.61 Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. v. OPC, Inc., 973 N.E.2d 1099 (Ind. 2012).
- The Kentucky Supreme Court rejected the claim of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) to the property of a local church that voted unanimously to disaffiliate from the parent body. The church voted to disaffiliate from the PECUSA because of disagreement with certain denominational policies, and a dispute arose between the church and PECUSA regarding ownership of the church’s property. The court emphasized that (a) the congregation’s withdrawal from the PECUSA “was unequivocal, and there was no dissenting faction,” (b) the “church property was acquired exclusively by the efforts of the local congregation,” (c) through the years title to the property was held by the church trustees and later by the church when it incorporated, and (d) the church “freely engaged in transactions such as purchase, encumbrance, and sale of its real property without any involvement by PECUSA.” Such evidence, observed the court, created an “appearance of absolute ownership” in the local church. However, the PECUSA maintained that certain denominational documents imposed a trust on the local church’s property in favor the national church, and that in any event the civil courts were required to defer to the conclusions of a hierarchical denomination such as the PECUSA (under the so-called “compulsory deference rule”). Both of these contentions were rejected by the court. It refused to adopt the “compulsory deference rule,” choosing instead the “neutral principles of law” approach to resolving church property disputes. Under this approach, the court concluded that the local church and not the PECUSA was the rightful owner of the property in question since nondoctrinal language in the church’s charter and deed clearly vested title in the local church.62 Bjorkman v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, 759 S.W.2d 583 (Ky. 1988). The court concluded: “It should be remembered that [the church] acquired the property with no assistance from PECUSA; that the property was managed and maintained exclusively by the church; that the church improved and added to its property; and that PECUSA deliberately avoided acquisition of title or entanglement with the property to ensure that it would not be subject to civil liability. The record is clear that PECUSA’s relationship with the church was exclusively ecclesiastical and the church was at all times in control of its temporal affairs.”
- Maryland’s highest court ruled that the property of a local church that disaffiliated from a national church belonged to the local church, based on the application of neutral principles of law. A local church was organized as an affiliate of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (“national church”). The court conceded that (1) the national church is hierarchical in polity; (2) the Book of Discipline requires local churches to insert clauses in deeds to their property recognizing a trust in favor of the national church; and (3) the Book of Discipline imposes the trust requirement even if local churches fail to include a trust provision in their deed. However, it cited the following evidence suggesting the absence of a trust in favor of the national church: (1) the church acquired all of its properties in its own name, without any reference to the national church; (2) none of the church’s deeds contained any language indicating that the property was being held in trust for the national church; (3) the church’s articles of incorporation do not mention the national church; (4) the church’s bylaws contain no reference to the national church. The court stressed that to resolve church property disputes solely on the basis of provisions in a national church’s governing documents with no consideration of other evidence “comes quite close to … violating the First Amendment’s prohibition against resolving rights to the use and control of church property on the basis of a judicial determination that one group of claimants has adhered faithfully to the fundamental faiths, doctrines and practices of the church prior to the schism, while the other group of claimants has departed substantially therefrom. Pressed to its logical conclusion, such a judicial inquiry becomes a heresy trial.” The court conceded that there is no need to consider other evidence “when there is clear trust or reverter language in the deed to the property.” But, this was not such a case.63 From the Heart Church Ministries v. African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 803 A.2d 548 (Md. 2002). The court stressed that the national church’s Book of Discipline did not contain a provision “dealing with the disposition of church property when a local church disaffiliates from the denomination” and that “consent to holding property in trust during the course of affiliation does not automatically constitute consent to relinquishing that property once the affiliation terminates.”
- A Massachusetts court ruled that a local church could retain its property after disaffiliating from a parent denomination. The members of a local church voted to amend the church’s bylaws to remove all reference to a parent denomination. The executive board of the denomination asked a court to declare the congregational meeting illegal and to rule that all of the church’s properties were subject to the control of the denomination. A state appeals court conceded that denominational documents “provide considerable force” to the denomination’s claim that it is hierarchical in terms of the control of local church property. But the court also noted that there had been “considerable movement in and out of the [denomination] by individual parishes who took with them their own property without claim by the [denomination].” Based on this evidence, the court concluded that the local church was congregational as far as the control and use of its property was concerned, and owned its own property.64 Primate Synod v. Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, 617 N.E.2d 1031 (Mass. App. 1993), aff’d, 636 N.E.2d 211 (Mass. 1994).
- The Missouri Supreme Court adopted the neutral principles approach and awarded church property to a schismatic church that disaffiliated from an hierarchical denomination (the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, or “UPCUSA”). The court observed that title to the church property was in the name of the local church, and nothing in the church or denominational bylaws or discipline provided any express trust in favor of the denomination.65 Presbytery of Elijah Parish Lovejoy v. Jaeggi, 682 S.W.2d 465 (Mo. 1984).
- A federal appeals court, applying Missouri law, ruled that a Church of God in Christ congregation that voted to secede from the national church retained control of its property. The court noted that Missouri courts had adopted the “neutral principles of law” approach to resolving church property disputes, and concluded that the local congregation retained title to its properties under the neutral principles of law approach on the basis of the following considerations: (1) The national Church contributed nothing to the acquisition of the congregation’s property. (2) The local congregation exercised complete control over the property without any interference from the Church. Indeed, the court pointed out that never in the congregation’s history, until the events leading to this lawsuit, had the Church attempted to exercise any control over the congregation. (3) The congregation’s articles of incorporation explicitly declare its independence from the national Church. (4) The deeds to the congregation’s properties vest title and control in the hands of the local congregation. The court rejected the Church’s claim that the congregation held its properties “in trust” for the national Church. It noted that “[t]he Church did not automatically provide local pastors with a copy of its manual, nor was it distributed generally to [the congregation’s] members. To require the … congregation to hold its property in trust for another without proper notice as to that requirement would too severely distort the application of neutral principles of Missouri law. With only its charter and constitution to point to, no evidence that [the congregation] actually acquiesced in that constitution, and all the other considerations pointing in favor of [the congregation] we conclude that the national Church cannot wrest ownership from the … congregation under neutral principles of Missouri law.”66 Church of God in Christ v. Graham, 54 F.3d 522 (8th Cir. 1995).
- The New York Court of Appeals adopted the neutral principles approach in a dispute involving ownership of property owned by a church that disaffiliated from the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), and awarded the church’s property to the local church. The court reasoned that there was no neutral principle of law vesting title in the denomination. The court rejected the denomination’s argument that “it is presumed that the local church intended to dedicate the property to the purposes of the larger body by voluntarily merging itself with it.” The court criticized the “compulsory deference” rule, since this rule “assumes that the local church has relinquished control to the hierarchical body in all cases, thereby frustrating the actual intent of the local church in some cases. Such a practice, it is said, discourages local churches from associating with a hierarchical church for purposes of religious worship out of fear of losing their property and the indirect result of discouraging such an association may constitute a violation of the free exercise clause. Additionally, by supporting the hierarchical polity over other forms and permitting local churches to lose control over their property, the deference rule may indeed constitute a judicial establishment of religion. …”67 Diocesan Missionary and Church Extension Society v. Church of the Holy Comforter, 628 N.Y.S.2d 471 (Sup. 1994). Accord Presbytery v. Trustees of First Presbyterian Church, 821 N.Y.S.2d 834 (N.Y. App. 2006). The court concluded that amendments to the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did not impose a trust upon the property of affiliated churches in favor of the national church.
- A North Carolina court ruled that title to a local Church of God congregation that disaffiliated from the denomination belonged to the local church rather than to denominational officials. In 1955, the congregation voted to affiliate with the Church of God denomination “for purposes of fellowship.” In 1988, the church voted to disaffiliate from the denomination. In response to this action, the “state overseer” of the Church of God dismissed the local church’s board of trustees and appointed a successor board consisting of denominational trustees. The successor trustees executed a deed conveying to themselves title to the church’s property. When local church members opposed this denominational control of their property, the denominational trustees asked a court to determine the lawful owner of the church property. The denominational bylaws specify that a local board of trustees shall hold title to local church property and that “all such property shall be used, managed, and controlled for the sole and exclusive use and benefit of the Church of God.” The court noted that as a general rule the parent body of a “connectional church” has the right to control the property of local affiliated churches. However, a local church “may have retained sufficient independence from the general church so that it reserved its right to withdraw at any time, and, presumably, take along with it whatever property it independently owned prior to and retained during its limited affiliation with the general church.” The court concluded that such was the case here. It based its ruling on the fact that “when the local church affiliated with the denominational church, the property was deeded to trustees of … the local church, not to the denominational church.”68 Looney v. Community Bible Holiness Church, 405 S.E.2d 811 (N.C. App. 1991).
- A Pennsylvania state appeals court ruled that a dissident church was entitled to retain its property following its disaffiliation from the Russian Orthodox Church because of a proposed revision by the Orthodox Church in its calendar. The court held that an award of a local church’s assets to a parent denomination is possible only if the denomination can demonstrate “(1) an actual transfer of property from the congregation to the hierarchical church body, or (2) clear and unambiguous documentary evidence or conduct on the part of the congregation evincing an intent to create a trust in favor of the hierarchical church body.” The court observed that the denomination could not satisfy the first test, since the local congregation “never relinquished its right to possession or legal title to the church property.” On the contrary, the church’s original affiliation with the Orthodox Church was accompanied by a letter expressing its intent to retain ownership and control of its property. As to the second requirement, the court observed, after reviewing the church’s charter, constitution, bylaws, and the bylaws of the Orthodox Church, that none of these documents contained any “clear and unambiguous” language creating a trust in favor of the Orthodox Church. The court also rejected the denomination’s claim that its “hierarchical structure” compelled an award in its favor, since “regardless of the form of government of the church in question, we must examine the relevant deeds, contracts, or other evidence to determine ownership of the disputed property.”69 Orthodox Church of America v. Pavuk, 538 A.2d 632 (Pa. Common. 1988). See also Board of Bishops of the Church of the Living God v. Milner, 513 A.2d 1131 (Pa. Common. 1986) (court awarded property to local church that disaffiliated from hierarchical denomination—on basis of neutral principles).
2. TITLE AWARDED TO DENOMINATIONS
A number of courts that have awarded the property of a dissident church to a parent denomination based on provisions in the denomination’s governing documents.70 See, e.g., Fry v. Emmanuel Churches of Christ, Inc., 839 S.W.2d 406 (Tenn. App. 1992) (Assembly of the Emmanuel Churches of Christ).This conclusion is based on either or both of the following grounds:
(1) Neutral principles of law. The denomination’s governing documents contain a provision directing that the property of a church that votes to terminate its affiliation reverts or otherwise belongs to the denomination, and, to the extent that such a provision can be applied without recourse to church doctrine, it constitutes a neutral principle of law that can be used to resolve a dispute over ownership of church property.
(2) Trust. The denomination’s governing documents impose a trust, either express or implied, on the property of affiliated churches in favor of the parent denomination.
It may be more accurate to say that those courts that resolve church property disputes on the basis of a trust created by a denomination’s governing documents are following the Supreme Court’s admonition in Watson that “it would seem … to be the obvious duty of the court … to see that the property so dedicated is not diverted from the trust which is thus attached to its use,”71 See notes 1 and 4, supra.rather than using a neutral principle of law analysis. The result, however, generally is the same, and so this section will include both kinds of cases.
- The Alabama Supreme Court ruled that a national denomination owned the property of a local church that voted to disaffiliate from the denomination, since the deed to the local church property vested title in the denomination, and denominational rules specified that “[i]f any members of the [denomination] leave or cease to be members of the [denomination], irrespective of the amount or number thereof, the fact that they leave or cease to be a member of the [denomination] shall not, in any manner, affect the property of the said church, and said party or parties or persons leaving the congregation or membership of the [denomination], in any manner, cannot and shall not take any property of the [denomination], in any manner, and all church property, irrespective, whether acquired by the local congregation, local church or otherwise, is the property of the [denomination].”72 Harris v. Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, Inc., 457 So.2d 385 (Ala. 1984). See also African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America, Inc. v. Zion Hill Methodist Church, Inc., 534 So.2d 224 (Ala. 1988). Contra Haney’s Chapel Methodist Church v. United Methodist Church, 716 So.2d 1156 (Ala. 1998).
- The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a national denomination owned the property of a local church that voted to disaffiliate from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) when the denomination approved the ordination of women. The court acknowledged that title to the church property was vested in the local congregation; that the deeds contained no reference to PECUSA and no language suggesting that the property was held by the local church in trust for the national denomination; and that PECUSA did not provide any financial assistance to the local church in purchasing the property. Nevertheless, the court concluded that “an intent on the part of the local church corporation to dedicate its property irrevocably to the purposes of PECUSA was expressed unambiguously in the combination of the [church’s] articles of incorporation, the local church bylaws, and the canons of the general church. …” The court noted that the local church’s articles of incorporation stated that the church was organized “to administer the temporalities of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the parish,” and that the church “does hereby expressly accede to all the provisions of the constitution and canons adopted by the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and to all of the provisions of the constitution and canons of the Diocese of Colorado.” These provisions, observed the court, “strongly indicate that the local church property was to be held for the benefit of the general church. … There are no provisions in the articles implicitly or explicitly expressing an intent to the contrary.” This and other evidence convinced the court that there was a “unity of purpose on the part of the parish and of the general church reflecting the intent that property held by the parish would be dedicated to and utilized for the advancement of the work of PECUSA. These provisions foreclose the possibility of the withdrawal of property from the parish simply because a majority of the members of the parish decide to end their association with PECUSA. We hold that the facts … establish that a trust has been imposed upon the real and personal property of the [local church] for the use of the general church.”73 Bishop and Diocese of Colorado v. Mote, 716 P.2d 85 (Colo. 1986).
- The Delaware Supreme Court ruled that a Methodist church had no legal authority to block a decision by the United Methodist Church to close the church because of dwindling membership. The court, applying neutral principles of law, concluded that the local church property was subject to an “implied trust” in favor of the United Methodist Church, and therefore the local church leaders acted unlawfully in withholding ownership and possession.74 East Lake Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc. v. Trustees of the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference, 731 A.2d 798 (Dela. 1999).
- A Florida court ruled that the property of a local church that attempted to secede from an hierarchical denomination remained with the denomination. An African Methodist Episcopal church disaffiliated from the parent denomination, and claimed ownership of its property following the disaffiliation. A state appeals court ruled that in Florida the property of such a church reverts to the denomination following the church’s disaffiliation. It concluded that a prior ruling of the state supreme court “requires that church property remain with the parent church where, as here, the church is hierarchical in structure. Given the trial court’s finding that the AME Church is hierarchical, judgment should have been entered in favor of [the national church] as representative of the original church.”75 Bethel AME Church v. Domingo, 654 So.2d 233 (Fla. App. 1 Dist. 1995).
- The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that a national church controlled the property of a local church that desired to separate from the national church, as a result of a provision in the governing documents of the national church. The court concluded: “It is undisputed that the [national church] remains a hierarchy, that the local church has been a member of the national church for over thirty years, and that the church is subject to the national church’s discipline. Such discipline unquestionably provides that the national church ‘shall hold all church property,’ thereby implying a trust for the benefit of the national church. And this is irrespective of the church’s continuing membership in the national church.”76 Holiness Baptist Association v. Barber, 552 S.E.2d 90 (Ga. 2001). Accord Pritchett v. Wesleyan Pentecostal Church, (Ga. App. 2004); Rector, Wardens, Vestrymen of Christ Church in Savannah v. Bishop of Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, Inc., 718 S.E.2d 237 (Ga. 2011) (the Georgia Supreme Court applied the “Dennis Canon”); Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Inc. v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, Inc., 719 S.E.2d 446 (Ga. 2011) (the Georgia Supreme Court relied on section G–8.0201 of the PCUSA Book of Order).
- The Louisiana Supreme Court adopted the neutral principles of law approach, but ruled that the property of a local church that disaffiliated from the African Methodist Episcopal Church belonged to the denomination (A.M.E. Church). The court relied on provisions in the denomination’s discipline requiring (a) denominational approval of transfers of local church property, and (b) reversion of title in “abandoned” or “disbanded” churches to the denomination. The court observed: “Applying the neutral principles which are evoked by our examination of the documents in purely secular terms, we concluded that it was the intention of the parties … that [the church property] not be alienated without A.M.E.’s consent, and will be considered abandoned to A.M.E. upon [the church’s] disbanding as an A.M.E. society. Accordingly, because of [the local church’s] disaffiliation without a prior valid transfer of [its property], A.M.E. has become vested with the exclusive right to control its use and to compel the transfer of title if necessary.77 Fluker Community Church v. Hitchens, 419 So.2d 445 (La. 1982).
- A Maryland court ruled that a parent denomination retained control of the property of a local congregation that voted to disaffiliate. The congregation of a church affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church voted in 1993 to disaffiliate from the parent body as a result of what it perceived to be burdensome financial demands and a decline in moral conditions within the denomination. Both the dissident congregation and the A.M.E. Church claimed the church’s property. A state appeals court awarded the church’s property to the national church. The court acknowledged that the deed and the A.M.E. Church Discipline did not contain any trust provision or reverter clause. However, the court insisted that these omissions did not mean that the seceding church retained its property. Quite to the contrary, “the absence of an explicit reverter upon withdrawal clause does not necessarily mean that the local church is entitled to retain control of its property.” Rather, a court must consider all relevant documents. The court noted that the church’s articles of incorporation specified that the “powers and authority of the trustees shall be in subjection to” the national church. It concluded: “Based exclusively on the language in the [articles of incorporation] requiring that the trustees hold the property ‘in trust’ for the A.M.E. Church, we hold that [the local church] was not entitled to retain control of the land after their departure from the A.M.E. Church.”78 Board of Incorporators v. Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church, 672 A.2d 679 (Md. App. 1996).
- The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that a local church held its property “in trust” for the benefit of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME), and therefore the church’s property remained with the CME when the local church voted to disaffiliate. The court noted that for the CME to prevail, it had to demonstrate (1) an actual transfer of property from the church to the CME; (2) an express trust in favor of the CME; or (3) clear and convincing evidence showing an intent by the church to create a trust in favor of the CME. The court found no evidence of an actual transfer of property to the CME, and therefore the CME had to prove that an express or implied trust was established in its favor in order to win. The court concluded that this test was met: “An analysis of the portions of the CME Book of Discipline governing the holding of church property reveals that the property in question has been held in trust for the CME by the trustees appointed by the Annual Conference. … The Book of Discipline states that titles to all property held by local churches are held in trust for CME and are subject to the provisions of the discipline. The property in question was conveyed by deed to the trustees of [the local church] and their successors and assigns. The trustees, although members of the local congregation, are appointed by the CME organization at its Annual Conference. Because the trustees are appointed by CME, it follows that the trustees are holding the property in trust for CME.”79 Bouldes v. Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, 748 So.2d 672 (Miss. 1999).
- A Missouri court ruled that the property of a dissident church belonged to a national church body with which it was affiliated. The local church opposed a 1984 resolution of the national church which permitted the ordination of women into the priesthood. After efforts to work out their differences failed, the national church attempted in install a new minister. When the congregation overwhelmingly voted to retain their original minister, the national church had the locks to the church property changed, barricades erected, and notices posted to keep people off the property. The congregation proceeded to have keys made to the new locks, removed the barricades, and held services on the premises. The national church then sought and obtained a court order banning the minister “and those acting in concert with him” from entering onto church property and from in any way disrupting the worship services conducted on the property. The congregation appealed this order, and a Missouri appeals court ruled in favor of the national church. With regard to the ownership of the church property, the court applied the neutral principles of law approach, observing that the national church owned the property since the deed to the property created an express trust in favor of the national church, as did relevant documents of the national church. Further, such provisions did not require any inquiries into religious doctrine.80 Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Thomas, 758 S.W.2d 726 (Mo. App. 1988).
- A New York court ruled that the property of a church that voted to disaffiliate from the Protestant Episcopal Church (national church) belonged to the national church rather than the local church. The court analyzed various documents to determine if the dispute could be resolved on the basis of neutral principles of law: (1) The court found no language in the deeds to the church property indicating that title was to be held in trust for the national church. Further, none of the deeds contained a forfeiture or reverter clause in favor of the national church. (2) The court noted that while the church’s certificate of incorporation “expressly acknowledged [the church’s] affiliation with the national church … nothing in its certificate of incorporation indicates how church property is to be owned.” (3) The court noted that the New York Religious Corporations Law was silent as to the ownership of property. (4) The court referred to the following canon that had been adopted by the national church in 1979: “All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. Existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.” The court concluded that this canon could be applied to the church property in this case even though the church had acquired its property prior to the adoption of the canon.81 Trustees of the Diocese of Albany v. Trinity Episcopal Church, 684 N.Y.S.2d 76 (Sup. Ct. 1999). Accord North Central New York Annual Conference v. Felker, 816 N.Y.S.2d 775 (N.Y.A.D. 2006); Presbytery v. Trustees, 895 N.Y.S.2d 417 (N.Y.A.D. 2010).
- The Supreme Court of South Carolina suggested that when a majority of the membership in a local church votes to disaffiliate the church from a parent denomination, a minority desiring to remain faithful to the parent church will receive title to church property. The court observed: “Counsel … argues the lower court should be reversed because neutral principles of law require that the property in question should be in the possession and control of the appellants as representing the majority of the members of the First Presbyterian Church of Rock Hill. … For this proposition appellants rely largely on the case of Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church. … A review of that case convinces us that it is of no comfort to the appellants here. … By a determination of this case, this Court exercises no role in determining ecclesiastical questions. We merely settle a dispute on the question of identity, which in turn necessarily settles a dispute involving the control of property. … The appellants voluntarily associated themselves with the First Presbyterian Church of Rock Hill and became subject to the discipline and government of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. They voluntarily severed their connection, and when they did they forfeited any right to the use and possession of the property of that church under the long established law of the church and of South Carolina. … By joining the First Presbyterian Church of Rock Hill the members did not acquire such an interest in the property that they are entitled to take with them upon seceding. The property belonged to the First Presbyterian Church of Rock Hill before the members joined the church, and it belongs to the same after they have withdrawn. They simply are not now a part of that church. There is nothing in the ruling of the lower court, nor in our ruling today, which establishes, sponsors, advances, or supports either the religious belief of the majority or the minority in this case. This Court has traditionally avoided any intrusion upon religious matters and has confined its rulings in such cases to identifying the faction which represents the church after the schism occurred. … In so doing, we applied neutral principles of law referred to in Hull.” Identifying the church, when a majority faction votes to disaffiliate, involves no interpretation of religious doctrine. It is a doctrinally neutral act, and therefore is consistent with Hull.82 Adickes v. Adkins 215 S.E.2d 442 (S.C. 1975), cert. denied, 423 U.S. 913 (1975).