Many of the churches that dot the North American cultural landscape were founded due to a church split. It does not matter whether the split was equal or left only a remnant in the original church or in the new church. This method of church planting is messy and painful, and does not always result in the survival of the older or the newer church. It happens, it seems, in every “religion” and in every type of religious group, including independent churches and denominations.
In Sentinel Insurance Company v Shaarei Tzion; Ahavat Israel, Slip Op. (D. Az., 2017), it was a “synagogue split” that created the property issues that led to a declaratory judgment action by the property insurer for Shaarei Tzion. Shaarei Tzion made a claim for $176,040 regarding property allegedly taken by former members when they left to form Ahavat Israel. The property included “several Torahs, prayer books, books, other religious artifacts, tables, chairs, and bookcases.” Of course, Shaarei Tzion and Ahavat Israel, both corporations, were suing each other. The opinion carefully untangles the competing claims and is a textbook example of how not to divide a congregation’s property in a church fission.
One argument that Ahavat Israel made was both unique and clever. Ahavat Israel could not deny that the property taken was in the possession of Shaarei Tzion. But, Ahavat Israel asserted Shaarei Tzion did not own the property because the property belonged to the “greater “Bucharian Jewish Community.”” The Court recognized that was an ecclesiastical argument it could not address but noted under neutral principles of law the Court did not need to resolve that issue and that the claim did not deflect Shaarei Tzion’s claim to possession. The Court noted that Shaarei Tzion, whether as custodian or permissive user of the property, if not outright owner, had a right to possession that Ahavat Israel did not have and that Ahavat Israel had committed conversion to take the property.
The lesson from this is that unless the fission creates a financial need great enough to force both entities to negotiate property divisions, the departing founders of the new church should simply leave all the property behind and invest their resources not in legal fees but in their own heritage and its material manifestations. Among some religious groups, the religious artifacts and worship tools are admittedly difficult to replace, but the alternative is protracted legal problems and protracted resentments.