From Christianity Today:
Ross "Buddy" Lindsay III receives phone calls every day from pastors who want his help wresting their church property from denominational control. As chancellor of All Saints Church in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Lindsay has spent a decade immersed in church property disputes. He is one of only four Americans with a master's degree in canon law from Cardiff University in Wales.
In September, the South Carolina State Supreme Court ruled 5-0 in favor of All Saints, allowing the 800-member congregation to keep its 50 acres worth $20 million. Before leaving the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2004, the church amended its charter, declaring that it no longer accedes to the national constitution. The court ruled the national church did not retain clear ownership of the local church property.
"The All Saints case is a roadmap for other congregations to secure their property before leaving their denomination," Lindsay says. All Saints is emblematic of passionate struggles that pit scores of breakaway congregations and entire dioceses against mainline denominations, primarily TEC and the Presbyterian Church (USA). In court papers, denominations paint local churches as secessionists, while local congregations see themselves as defenders of the faith set against an apostate national church.
Each side believes the turf wars could impact the future of church-state relations, since the U.S. Supreme Court may get involved. Lindsay says, "If the Supreme Court rules for All Saints, it could largely be the death of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches."
Some conservative congregations in the PC(USA) contend that when their denomination has made no financial investment in a local church, it should not stand to gain when a church attempts to leave. "The denomination didn't put a dime into these local church properties," says Parker Williamson, editor emeritus of The Presbyterian Layman, a conservative North Carolina-based journal.
So far, only a handful of parishes have prevailed against denominations. "It's relatively easy for religious organizations that have good legal advice to protect the property from a breakaway faction," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, an Episcopalian and constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. "Even if the majority wants to leave, the denomination has documentation on its side."
In 1871, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Watson v. Jones that local congregations that had agreed to abide by the bylaws of denominations with hierarchal structures were bound by a "compulsory deference rule." In property matters, the final decision was left to the national office.
Then in 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in Jones v. Wolf that a state may adopt "neutral principles" of law by examininglegal documents to resolve church prop-erty disputes. The South Carolina Supreme Court used the neutral principles approach in its All Saints ruling. After leaving TEC, the church affiliated with the Anglican Mission in the Americas, a Rwandan mission effort with which many former TEC churches have affiliated.
In the wake of Jones v. Wolf, many mainline Protestant denominations have changed their constitutions to declare that real estate, personal property, and endowments are held in trust by the denomination, so that regardless of whose name is on the deed, local churches accede to the national body.
Lindsay says that All Saints is the only local church to confront the accession issue head-on and win. "If accession language remains in the congregation's charter, it is deadly in a church property suit," he says. Episcopal officials believe All Saints' case is an aberration. The church was founded in 1767, before the founding of the national church.
The outcomes of property dispute cases often depend on the state in which the conflict occurs. In California, courts tend to focus on national church hierarchy. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the high-stakes case of St. James Parish v. Diocese of Los Angeles. St. James lost in pre-trial motions at both the appellate court and state supreme court levels. In 2004, St. James aligned with the Anglican Church in North America, a network comprising former TEC churches.
Richard Crocker, rector of the 350 member St. James in Newport Beach, says he remains hopeful the case will go to trial because of a written promise by the denomination in 1991 that it would never lay claim to the property. In the meantime, he says, "I am trying to keep the mission of the congregation focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the only Savior."
Not Just Property
More cases are percolating up to higher courts. This spring, attorney Steffen N. Johnson of Alexandria, Virginia, will represent half a dozen breakaway TEC churches that have sued the denomination to keep property. In 2008, the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the local congregations. The consolidated case is before the Virginia Supreme Court. More than $5 million has already been spent by both sides.
"When there is division within a denomination, a congregation can vote to determine which branch of the divided body it wants to join," says Johnson. In the Virginia case, the parishes realigned with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, associated with the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that judges should not rule on doctrinal disputes, civil courts can determine whether the local parish or the denomination is the rightful owner, though this can be difficult to do.
George Washington Law School professor Robert W. Tuttle says that some jurisdictions have been sympathetic to local congregations that never accepted unilateral denominational impositions to control all property in trust.
Other jurisdictions have determined that if a congregation remains in a denomination for decades after implementation of such rules, accession is implicit. Consequently, a checkerboard pattern of court decisions has developed.
"In most of these fights there is at least some remnant that wants to remain, so the fights are really about who is the true congregation," Tuttle says.
"It's not just about property," says L. Martin Nussbaum, a Colorado Springs attorney who defends religious organizations. "It's also about who are the lawful ecclesiastical officers. Typically a majority faction leaves and tries to claim the property on the way out."
From a legal standpoint, the lawsuits are about the land, the buildings, and all improvements made to the real estate. But because real property includes endowments, wealthy churches may have multimillion-dollar investment portfolios at stake.
University of Missouri School of Law professor Carl H. Esbeck says the disputes are about more than local congregants finding another place to worship. "For some people, these are buildings where they were married, where their children were baptized, where their parents are buried in the churchyard. There are ties and memories to the site that can't be replaced by pulling up stakes."
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