SILENCE IS NOT GOLDEN

Churches that are denominational members, and not just affiliated loosely, are typically bound by the denominational governing documents and rulings of the denomination about the scope or meaning of the governing documents.  These denominations and their local churches are often referred to as “hierarchical” even though a few denominations do not like that word.  The denominational governing documents were generally developed over many decades.

In Presbytery of New York City v Zion Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, 2020 NY Slip Op 31649(U), the trial court quieted the title to the local church property in the denomination upon the local church’s attempted secession from the denomination.  One of the arguments made that caused this opinion to differ from many others arising from this denominational split was that the local church claimed they never agreed to amendments three decades earlier to the denominational governing documents that first included the property reversion clause.  The Court rejected the argument, among other reasons, because during the decades following the amendment the local church did not object to the amendment.  An odd statement in the opinion, which was otherwise well and conventionally articulated was the statement:  “On July 2, 1979, in Jones v Wolf, the United States Supreme Court held that a state is constitutionally entitled to adopt secular, neutral principles of law that rely on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to law and judges to resolve church property disputes (443 US 595, 603 [1979])” (underlining added).

The local church’s conduct during several decades in silently ignoring or, indeed, accepting the adoption of the reversionary clause was deemed an acquiescence.  The lesson for the denomination was to obtain a “sign off” from its local churches in some manner even if it was subtle or hidden in fine print, although in a manner of speaking the court held the denomination did so.  The lesson for local church leaders is to read the fine print and opt out where permitted.  Battles by local churches against reversionary clauses have not gone well.

It seems unlikely that states are “constitutionally entitled” to decide property disputes by using Neutral Principles of Law.  While the Eleventh Amendment does protect the sovereign rights of states, the fact that the Eleventh Amendment was necessary indicates the Constitution as originally formulated did not “entitle” states rights.  Because ownership of land and buildings is generally a secular activity rather than an Ecclesiastical activity in which states have a responsibility to govern, the highest courts have pointed the way to decisions that do not require Ecclesiastical inquiries by secular courts.

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