Typically, denominational authorities include in their denominational control documents, or even in the titles of the local churches, reversion provisions that prevent local churches from going rogue or otherwise fleeing with the real property. These provisions are generally intended to protect the generations of members that contributed to the equity owned by the local church by preventing the current generation of members, or some vocal part, from “strip mining” the local church real estate asset. Sometimes these provisions provide leverage to the denomination to enforce unpopular ecclesiastical positions. Rightly or wrongly, the reversion provisions are enforced by secular courts and courts will rarely if ever look to the underlying dispute to deny enforcement.
In Saint James Mission Church v African Methodist Episcopal Church, Slip Op. (La. App. 2017), some of the local church members tried to use an eviction docket to evict the denomination after they were locked out. The split with the denomination raged through the eviction proceeding, a federal trial court proceeding, a federal appellate court proceeding, and finally the state appellate court proceeding. It took at least six years. The legal expense was likely significant. But, in the end, the federal courts ended up on the side line, the state trial court dismissed the eviction proceeding, and the state appellate court affirmed. The state appellate court held that the eviction docket had a dedicated purpose and the enabling statutes did not allow the proceeding to be expanded into an “ordinary proceeding.” Thus, dismissal was appropriate.
The attempt to expand the eviction docket was clever but ultimately, if this is the final round in this war, an expensive failure. It was a stretch to characterize the denomination as a “lessee.” Limited purpose court dockets are rigid because otherwise they could not serve the limited purpose that birthed them so the rebelling local church members probably knew this was a long shot. Knowing that, they funded the effort. Litigating about litigating is always expensive and never reaches the merits of the dispute.