While in recent months, especially in Oklahoma, there has been considerable angst regarding the scope of the sovereignty of tribal governments, virtually the same type of issue arises with regard to denominational authority. Indeed, some denominations resolve certain disputes by convening a court. It may be called an “Ecclesiastical Council” rather than called a court, or by some other name, but nonetheless it is a court.
In Church of God in Christ, Inc. v L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., Slip Op. (Tenn. App. 2020), the appellate court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the denomination. The local church’s long time pastor died. He was succeeded for a couple of years by a “Jurisdictional Bishop” that appointed himself as pastor. However, the successor died. For a time, the position of “Jurisdictional Bishop” remained vacant and so, too, as a result did the pastorate of the local church. Tiring of the circumstances, the local church in a congregational vote attempted to terminate its “jurisdiction” membership and transfer to another denominational jurisdiction. However, the original denominational jurisdiction appointed a “Jurisdictional Bishop” and he in turned appointed himself pastor of the local church. The faction of the local church that led the attempt to change denominational jurisdictional membership refused to relinquish control of the local church property or assets to the “Jurisdictional Bishop” appointed as pastor. To resolve the dispute with the local church, the denomination convened an “Ecclesiastical Council” to decide the matter. The council affirmed the appointment of the “Jurisdictional Bishop” as local church pastor and excommunicated the dissenting faction. The local church led by the dissenters resisted and the lawsuit was filed to enforce the decision of the denomination. The courts refused to review the “Ecclesiastical Council’s” decision, treated it as binding and worthy of deference, and granted judgment to the denomination.
The governing documents of the denomination and the local church made ecclesiastical inquiries unnecessary. Once the denomination established its authority to select the pastor, its authority to hold the local church property in trust, and its authority to excommunicate the dissenters, the denominational decision was treated deferentially. To avoid such an outcome, the local church should have obtained a documented “acceptance” from the denominational jurisdiction to which it tried to transfer by congregational vote. Further, the acquiescence of the losing denominational jurisdiction should have been negotiated. Both efforts would have been cheaper than litigation and more likely to be successful.
We have reported many times the attempts of local churches, some clever and some blundering, to slip the ties that once happily kept them snug in the denomination once those ties became odious. Almost uniformly, those efforts have failed. Hierarchical denominations receive greater deference regarding internal decisions about property and ministers.
In Dong San Church Corporation v Park, Slip Op. (Cal. App. 2020), the trial granted summary judgment to the denomination in a lawsuit for declaratory judgment and to quiet title. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The local church was a member of the denomination for more than two decades. The local church was led by an interim pastor that was not confirmed as pastor by the denomination because of legal issues unresolved in South Korea. To keep the interim pastor, the local church sought disaffiliation with the denomination. The interim pastor and some members of the local church disassociated themselves from the denomination. The courts held that the disaffiliation effort by the local church was not effective under the denominational governance documents. The disassociation of the interim pastor and some of the members did not change the affiliation of the local church. The denomination appointed a new pastor and the court quieted title in favor of the denomination.
The denomination probably should have not have permitted the interim pastor to serve as long as he did given the serious nature of the unresolved legal issues in South Korea. Appointment of a replacement pastor should have been the choice rather than the wait and see choice made by the denomination. Waffling on employment or appointment decisions very often leads to protracted litigation.
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 )” (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.
Title to local church property like any other property in most states is controlled by the language of a deed filed in governmental property records. But, as the years pass, church life cycles may include names changes as well as substantive changes in affiliations. Sometimes these changes should be reflected in an amended deed. Because institutional memory in a primarily volunteer organization like a church is not well preserved and change in circumstances and conditions is usually gradual disparity in ownership and governance documents can result.
In First Presbyterian Church of Magnolia v Presbytery of the Pines, 2020 Ark. App. 253, the trial court held that the quiet title action commenced by the local church against the denomination was not justiciable. The appellate court reversed and held the quiet title action, and any other properly raised claim, was justiciable if Neutral Principles of Law controlled the outcome. In a quiet title action, Neutral Principles of Law could make the case justiciable. The local church was formed and acquired its property in the mid-Twentieth Century when there were two denominational bodies. The local church was a member of the denominational body that did not have a property reversion clause in its Book of Order until thirty years after the formation of the local church. As a result, the property deed of the local church did not contain a reference to the reversionary clause. Later, the two denominational bodies merged leaving a single denominational organization. The surviving entity did have a reversionary clause in the surviving Book of Order. On remand, the trial court will be faced with a reversionary clause adopted after the fact and twice removed from the original property deed that did not contemplate either reversionary clause.
Some states may place a property deed on a part with denominational governance documents. Denominations may desire that local church property deeds reflect denominational interests. However, that may make mortgages problematic. Local churches must evaluate their denominational affiliation carefully and determine whether the state of residence of the local church would consider denominational governance documents controlling over local church property deeds.