Church Property Ownership Revisited

The case of Ohio District Council, Inc. of the Assemblies of God v Speelman, 47 NE 3d 954 (OH App., 2016) is an excellent example of how the real estate of a denominational church will be viewed by a court in a “neutral principles of law” jurisdiction.  In Speelman, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s abstention decision and ordered reconsideration on remand “based upon the nature of the relationship incident to affiliation in a hierarchical church polity.”  The trial court was instructed to review the constitution and bylaws of the general council of the Assemblies of God and of the district council.  Most likely, the review will or did result in the church property being deemed owned or held in trust by the district council or the general council, or both.

The church in the case fell on hard times and its membership dwindled.  It sought financial resources and eventually a merger with a church not a part of the Assemblies of God.  The merger would have had the effect of moving the church real estate and buildings out of the Assemblies of God.  The Assemblies of God district council sought to recover the real estate and buildings from the merged entity.

From the denominational side, the typical view is that the church real estate and buildings were paid for over a period of decades by several generations of members that had an expectation that their contribution would remain in the denomination to accomplish the mission even after they passed away or out of that local church.  In other words, the denominational leadership believes such a lawsuit is needed to protect the investment of prior generations of members.  Sometimes, the current generation of local church members come to believe the real estate and buildings are owned by them even though in most cases they inherited much of their capital from prior generations of members.  Neutral principles jurisdictions will usually ignore the arguments of both sides, no matter how pungent or equitable, in favor of the controlling constitution and bylaws.

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