Oklahoma court upholds presbytery, PC(USA) in Kirk of the Hills case

Judge Jefferson Sellers enforced the decision of the Presbytery’s Administrative Commission and ordered Kirk of the Hills to convey the church’s real and personal property to Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery (www.eokpresbytery.org.)

The judge issued a 20-day stay before any implementation of the ruling.

The civil court litigation was commenced by Kirk of the Hills in August 2006, styled, Kirk of the Hills Corporation, plaintiff, v. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), defendants, Case No. CJ-2006-5063, after the local congregation voted to affirm its leadership’s decision to leave the denomination. The presbytery appointed an Administrative Commission that issued its report on March 6, 2007, declaring that the local church “is in schism” and that “its property, real and personal, is to be used for the use and benefit of the PC(USA) and shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold by the presbytery.”

The Court followed the “hierarchical deference” approach in awarding the property to the presbytery, which holds the property in trust for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Oklahoma has been considered a “hierarchical deference” jurisdiction since the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling in 1973 in Presbytery of Cimarron v. Westminster Presbyterian Church of Enid.

Craig Hoster, an attorney for Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, in reaction to the Court’s ruling, said, “The Court followed Oklahoma law. When a local church participates in, prospers from and enjoys the benefits afforded by the parent church, as has been the case here for more than forty years, it cannot then disclaim affiliation when it disagrees with the parent body, so as to shield church property from the equitable or contractual interests of the parent church. Here, the Court correctly applied Oklahoma law enforcing the decisions of the duly appointed Administration Commission and awarding the property to Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The Court affirmed the concept that individuals may leave the church but they cannot take the church property with them.”

The judge stated that even if the state precedent for hierarchical deference is overturned on appeal, the Court rules that the arguments by the presbytery and PC(USA) would prevail even under a “neutral principles of law” approach. Judge Sellers, in effect, indicated his ruling for the presbytery and PC(USA) applied under both legal grounds.

Appeals would go to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which can either take the case or refer it to the Court of Civil Appeals.

The Kirk of the Hills Church issued a statement Sept. 9 indicating in part that an appeal will be filed. “We are disappointed by this decision, but not surprised. We are hopeful that the Oklahoma Supreme Court will correct this injustice,” Co-Pastor Tom Gray said. “All we have wanted was to keep the property we purchased and have considered our home for worship, teaching, and fellowship for these many decades. We will continue to stand firm on the teachings of the Holy Bible and look to the Lord for our strength.” 

The church property is currently used by the 2,400 members, 175 families whose children attend the Kirk of the Hills Preschool, and more than 50 families with disability needs that the church assists on a monthly basis, according to the statement. More information is available at www.thekirk.org.

Greg Coulter, general presbyter of Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery, stated, “We are pleased with the decision of the Court to uphold the laws of the State of Oklahoma and to recognize the extensive efforts that Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery has taken to resolve the issues in accordance with the ecclesiastical process to which we have all submitted ourselves as officers and members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). At the same time, there is a great sadness over this division within the Body of Christ. … There has been much pain on all sides of the issues. It is our prayer that healing may now begin.” 

 

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