At a time when the threat of mainline Protestant congregations leaving their denomination is looming, the legal landscape is shifting to allow such dissidents greater possibility of taking their buildings and land with them.World magazine (December 23) reports that the battle over church property is raging in the Episcopal as well as the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches. In the the past the courts have routinely deferred to denominations rather than congregations in such conflicts because they have clauses declaring that property owned by congregations is held in trust with the denomination.
But because property ownership is in the realm of state corporate law, a few courts have started deciding church property disputes according to “neutral principles” while steering clear of doctrinal squabbles. Most recently, a California appeals court allowed St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Fresno to keep its property in its split from the denomination. The congregation had changed its articles of incorporation to deed all its property to itself with no mention of a trust. The ruling sent “shock waves through denominational offices across the country. So far no appeal has been made, and an informal survey by the magazine finds that only 20 percent of states are so far applying the neutral principles in these conflicts.
But the article adds that “states will amend corporate laws to more clearly define property rights, and the cutting edge will see courts giving greater attention to such issues as revocable trusts [according to] several lawyers” interviewed by the magazine. In the Episcopal Church, denominational leaders are “alarmed by the judicial trends and the fast-moving developments among conservatives,” and are gearing up for most likely a long season of court battles.
(World, P.O. Box 20002, Asheville, NC 28802)