Splitting churches sometimes leave to courts the decision as to property ownership between the factions. If the church is part of a hierarchical denomination, typically the court will give deference to the ecclesiastical authority’s decision making as to ownership. If the church is part of a denomination that is not hierarchical, or the church is independent of any denomination, then to award clear title to the church property the court will under the neutral principles doctrine review the foundational documents of the church from a secular view point to decide which faction has ownership, or the right to vote on leadership that might control ownership.
The hierarchical deference doctrine is used by a minority of states to decide contested church property ownership issues. The calculation of that minority seems to be further impaired by the drift of the doctrine toward and into the neutral principles doctrine. The cause of this is that to determine if there is a binding hierarchical relationship, foundational documents usually have to be carefully reviewed to establish that the hierarchy exists and its authority over local church property. As a practical matter, the neutral principles doctrine must do the same.
In this case both doctrines led to the same conclusion. In Heartland Presbytery v The Presbyterian Church of Stanley, Inc., Slip Op. (KS App. 2017), the court decided ownership between two factions by invoking the hierarchical deference doctrine. The denomination awarded the church property to the “staying faction.” However, just to cover all the bases, it seemed, the court went on to decide the case under the neutral principles doctrine and reached the same result. The court’s opinion is a lengthy primer on both doctrines.
However, the “departing faction” decided to depart the church and form a new church affiliated with a new denomination a few days after the trial court judgment against them. The “staying faction” argued the “departing faction” by their departure from the church abandoned the appeal basing their argument on the “judgment acquiescence” doctrine. The factions both used the church property for worship albeit at different times. The court rejected the abandonment argument.
It is not the place of the courts, or this blog, to decide the theological controversy that led to the church split. A “leaving faction” or “dissenting group” should make an early determination as to whether it is reasonably probable to prevail if the local church is part of a hierarchical denomination. The same is true in a neutral principles jurisdiction. Such an early determination may allow a “leaving faction” to spend its resources on a new church work rather than a legal battle.