Whether a local church can break away (“disaffiliate” in some groups) from a denomination, and whether the local church has followed the procedure to do so to conclusion, are usually very difficult inquiries. Because the determination of whether there is an ability to break away, and whether it has been done, usually determine who owns the local church property some courts are tempted to decide these issues as if they were amenable to review under Neutral Principles of Law. Others refuse to decide the issues under the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine.
In Blue v Church of God Sanctified, Inc., Slip Op. (Tenn. App. 2022), the trial court refused to determine whether the local church “disaffiliated” by holding the issue was shrouded in the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. Nevertheless, because the denomination determined that the local church held the church property in trust for the denomination, the trial court held that decision was also shrouded in the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine. The Tennessee Court of Appeals in its lengthy and detailed opinion affirmed the trial court. While the appellate court authorized trial courts to review all governance and property ownership documents, the decision of the denomination that the local church property was held in trust for the denomination was ecclesiastical if it was enshrined in denominational governance documents. That was so regardless of whether or not the local church property deed contained a “trust clause” making the local church owner a trustee for the denomination.
Courts were sometimes hung up on the boundary between the ecclesiastical and secular property ownership. Such courts can elevate the presence or absence of language in deeds above denominational governance documents, or even local church governance documents. The approach in the reported case avoids blurring the ecclesiastical boundary by elevating the denominational governance documents and relying on other documents only in the event of silence or ambiguity in the denominational governance documents.