The case of In Re Glass & Garden Drive-in Church, Slip Op. (Ariz. App. 2016)(not for publication) is interesting because the church was trying to wind down its existence and allow, rather than resist, a denominational takeover (interestingly enough called “suppression”) because of inadequate membership growth, inadequate revenue growth, and property costs that were too much to carry. However, at least one member led a few others to resist the takeover of the property by the denomination. One of the members wanted $150,000 in compensation from the assets of the church but the reason for the demand was unclear.
The Arizona Appellate Court declined to allow the member(s) to proceed to oppose the “suppression” because the church’s foundational documents, articles of incorporation and bylaws, recognized the church’s existence as a part of the denomination. Thus, the actions of the denomination to marshal the assets of the local church were conducted under the shield of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
As a result, civil courts cannot “inquire into internal organizational disputes between different factions of a religious organization or into property disputes that would require interpreting religious doctrine or practice.” [Citation omitted.] Rather, they “must accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” [Citation omitted.]
Slip Op. at 7.
Petitioners’ characterization of the core issue as one of property simply does not transform this case into a church property dispute under the neutral principles doctrine.
Slip Op. at 10. The court noted the ownership of the church property was not in dispute. The property was owned by the local church (which was incorporated). The denomination simply had the right to take over the existence of the local church pursuant to the governing documents.