Church splits in hierarchical churches almost uniformly end badly for the insurgents. The only exceptions are when church governing documents, including incorporation documents, and land titles do not consistently tie the ownership to the denomination rather than the local group of congregations or the local congregation. Because church property in hierarchical churches is typically amassed over many years and many generations of members, the local church members often cannot truthfully say they alone bought and built it. The denomination must admit that offerings made by members, over multiple generations of members, bought and built the church property in question and that the denomination at best is a trustee for them.
In The Episcopal Church v Salazar, Slip Op. (Tex. Civ. App. 2018), the latest appellate decision in a church split that began in 2008 (or possibly earlier) built upon a prior Texas Supreme Court Decision in Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth v Episcopal Church, 422 SW 3d 646 (Tex. 2013), cert den., 135 S. Ct. 435 (2014) and the trial court proceedings that followed the Supreme Court’s decision. To reach this new decision, the latest intermediate appellate opinion only sued over 50,000 words in 177 pages and 114 footnotes. Thus, in a blog post, the reader should expect only the most summary of coverage. It should also be noted that in the Supreme Court case, the Texas Supreme Court adopted the neutral principles of law doctrine so that a civil court could determine ownership of property and other matters important to the State without infringing on ecclesiastical issues. Given the new ground to plow, the length of the intermediate appellate decision about which this blog reports is at least understandable. It contained both denominational and diocesan legal histories as well as documented the evolution of neutral principles doctrine.
The trial court on remand from the Supreme Court considered the evidence and determined by summary judgment that the right to control the non-profit corporation that was the shell of the diocese was and remained under the control of the denomination. This church split, like many of this type, began with a theological dispute which resulted in an attempt by some member organizations or local churches to “disaffiliate.” When “disaffiliation” failed because the organizational documents of the denomination and the local organizations and churches would not support it, the next effort was to attempt to have friendlies elected to the governing board of the non-profit corporation and to displace board members loyal to the denomination (if there were any serving). But, in addition to organizations and churches that tried to “disaffiliate,” the trial court held that the insurgents elected to the board were disqualified from election from inception due to their own “disaffiliation” which ended their memberships under the governing documents.
The lesson for insurgents, and warning for denominations, is that if insurgents do not “disaffiliate” but remain members in good standing, and are elected to the board of the non-profit corporation that is the shell for a diocese or a local church, that board will have effective control of the assets. “Loyalty oaths” have not worked, as history has taught, but restricting the power of the board to financially alienate itself from the denomination could blunt or contain the power of insurgents. Indeed, the reason denominations have not used this technique, absent internal political necessities, was to preserve the borrowing power of the local organizations and churches to acquire church property. The necessity of that practice may be sufficiently diminished in more mature denominations to allow greater financial oversight by the denomination.