In a single church building, two factions formed and irrevocably divided the congregation. One faction was led by a presiding vicar appointed by a metropolitan and the other faction was led by another presiding vicar appointed by a different metropolitan. The metropolitans were from two different nations. The two factions shared the church building for several years while their litigation for ownership proceeded. But, one faction tired of awaiting the judicial outcome and locked out the other. The locked out faction sought an injunction to resume sharing the building and it was granted. An appeal followed. The faction that sought to lock out the other claimed they were changing the locks because their metropolitan ordered that sacraments be offered in the building only once per Sunday. The faction that changed the locks claimed that their action was ecclesiastical because they were obeying an ecclesiastical order. The appellate court affirmed the injunction because it was a preliminary and temporary order meant only to preserve the status quo. St. Mary’s Knanaya Church, Inc. v Abraham, Slip Op., Commonwealth Court PA, 2017.
The Court certainly did not accuse anyone of trying to game the system with an “ecclesiastical” order. Nevertheless, it is hard not to wonder if that was the strategy. It would have been a clever ruse but like most “trick plays” it had no lasting impact on the score. Regardless, the amount of money the competing factions are expending on legal fees to protect their respective ownership rights in the building would likely have comfortably relocated one of the factions.
The primary legal lesson from this opinion might be that a preliminary injunction designed only to preserve the status quo will receive greater tolerance even if it tends to intrude into ecclesiastical matters. Also, because this is at its core a dispute over real estate, neutral principles would allow disposition without consideration of ecclesiastical orders delivered solely to resolve the land dispute.