And in a closely-watched case involving an Episcopal congregation in Newport Beach, the California Supreme Court ruled recently that the national church, not the congregation, owned the property.
In that case, St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach had split away from the national Episcopal church in July 2004 after V. Eugene Robinson was named the bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The St. James congregation has affiliated with the Anglican Church of Uganda.
The PC(USA) and United Methodists were among the denominations weighing in on the case, supporting the legal view that the property should remain with the denomination. The California Supreme Court ruling, issued January 5, effectively means that the St. James congregation can leave, but cannot take its property because the property was held in trust for the good of the national church.
“Although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be bound by its governing documents,” stated the decision, written by Associate Justice Ming W. Chin.
“These governing documents make clear that church property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled by the local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the general church,” the decision states. “When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it.”
The ruling says “state courts must not decide questions of religious doctrine; those are for the church to resolve.” But the court can apply “neutral principles of law” by considering such things as deeds to the property, the congregation’s articles of incorporation, and the rules of the denomination.
The California decision is one in a string of court rulings observers are watching as congregations seeking to leave their denominations — many of them reaching the breaking point over doctrinal disputes or disagreements on issues such as homosexuality — try to take their property with them. Some have been resolved relatively amicably, with a negotiated financial agreement. Others have resulted in litigation and animosity.
In the PC(USA), those cases range from ones involving large, high-profile congregations — for example, Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa, which voted to accept an agreement with Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery to buy its property for $1.75 million, following a legal ruling in favor of the presbytery — to smaller congregations that have negotiated property settlements with their presbyteries without filing litigation.
Church-state scholar Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School, estimated in an interview with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that about 100 congregations around the United States were involved in property litigation, usually resulting from a more conservative congregation attempting to leave a denomination it perceived as more liberal.
Court rulings have varied. Some favor the congregation and others the denomination, depending in part on whether or not the courts relied on a “neutral principles of law” reasoning, or a line of cases involving deference to church hierarchy.
Tuttle said it’s possible the U.S. Supreme Court could take on this issue at some point. And while many property cases so far have involved Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, that could spread to other denominations, he said – and potentially to property disputes arising from issues other than differences over conservative-liberal issues or homosexuality.