Most of the time when a utility like a sewer fails clean up and repair follow at costs low enough for the local church, like any other property owner, to absorb. But, when it is a disastrous backup from a city maintained line the damage from which is either not insured at all, or inadequately insured, further investigation of the cause may be required. If the cause is not the church building or its people, it may be the municipality providing the sewer line. If it is, the church may have to proceed with a claim for reimbursement of its damages.
In Crestwood Vineyard Church, Inc. v City of Oklahoma City, 2020 OK CIV APP 3, the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the city was reversed. The church timely filed a tort claim notice in compliance with the state tort claim statute that required filing of the notice. Without such a properly filed notice, the lawsuit may have been barred. When the city denied the claim, or by operation of law it was denied, the church filed suit. The trial court entered summary judgment because the city proved it had no user complaints from the sewer line in the five years prior to the incident. The sewer back up into the basement of the church was cleaned out by the city but the damage to the basement was extensive. The appellate court held that while the lack of a user complaint to the city indicated the city did not have that type of notice, the city had not proven it lacked notice by virtue of its own maintenance records. On remand to the trial court, the church will have the opportunity to prove through sewer maintenance records, if the church can do so, that the city had another form of notice.
A large city may or may not have records that are reliable as to whether there were, indeed, user complaints. Complaints may come from so many sources that complaint tracking for a government entity is a technological and records preservation challenge. A church in such a situation should check with the neighbors, such as other users on the same sewer line. Whether maintenance records will prove the matter one way or another may also be problematic. A large city covering many square miles and managing substantial infrastructure may or may not have records of completeness and clarity. Gaps in maintenance records, if any, may be more valuable than the records themselves.
There is no particular legal argument local denominational churches can use to escape “trust clauses.” A “trust clause” typically means that the local church property and assets will revert to or taken over by the denomination if the local church no longer functionally exists. The motion common unsuccessful legal argument is that the local church conducted a “congregational meeting” and exited from the denomination. However, it is usually impossible for the local church to prove that there was an actual “congregational meeting” called or conducted consistent with the local church bylaws or the denominational governance documents.
In Presbyterian Church of the Palisades, Inc. v Hwang, Slip Op. (Sup NJ Chancery Div., 2019), a faction or remnant of the local church tried to defeat the “trust clause” by arguing a congregational meeting was convened to extract the local church from the denomination. The argument that the “will” of the congregation can be determined using Neutral Principles of Law, typically state corporate law, has not been available since it was rejected by the United States Supreme Court in 1969 and it was not resurrected in this case. In this case, too, the corporate minutes did not document that a congregational meeting was called consistent with the state statute or the local church bylaws. Indeed, the proof did not appear to support the assertion there had been such a meeting. Also, the faction remaining did not appear to have been properly elected to office. Summary judgment for the denomination was affirmed. The parallel foreclosure on the church property because of the default on the $2.7 million mortgage was also allowed to proceed.
Joining a denomination is easy and departing is nearly impossible. It is usually faster and cheaper for a congregation that desires to depart from a denomination to simply leave the church property and start over again elsewhere. Few congregations survive either staying and fighting with the denomination or leaving, but leaving presents the greater chance. The emotional attachment to a church property always seems misplaced.
When venerable and historically recognizable church buildings are destroyed there is a profound sense of loss. While few are listed, some church buildings are on the National Register. Other types of buildings on the National Register are protected but church buildings may not be. Also, just because preservation seems like a good idea does not mean enough money to do so will follow.
In Friends to Restore St. Mary’s, LLC v Church of Saint Mary, Melrose, Slip Op. (Minn. App. 2019), the church building was sufficiently significant “historically” that it was accepted on the National Register. However, that did not prevent an arsonist from gutting the interior of the building. The archdiocese ultimately decided to demolish the entire building because, even if restored, it would no longer be a “functional” church building by modern worship standards. The Plaintiff sought an injunction to prevent demolition of the building. The injunction was denied by the trial court and the appellate court because adjudication of the claim was precluded by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. The appellate court held that the trial court could not evaluate whether “there are feasible and prudent alternatives to destroying the church building” under Neutral Principles of Law without invading ecclesiastical decisions. The argument the archdiocese did not have the authority to order demolition required an interpretation of Canon Law. The determination of whether an alternative use would be “profane” or “sordid” under Canon Law could not be made on other than ecclesiastical grounds.
Unstated in the opinion but likely at the heart of the problem for those wishing to preserve a historically significant building gutted by an arsonist was insufficient insurance coverage or other funding. A special policy may have been needed to create the resources to rebuild the church interior to its pre-fire look, much less to remodel the interior for modern worship needs. A typical fire loss policy would have been inadequate for what would otherwise be a total loss. But, maintaining the commitment to pay for such an extra or special policy year in and year out would have required an extraordinary commitment. Most churches simply cannot afford it. Too, unstated, was the financial burden on offering plates of restoring an antique, or obsolete, church building, which most courts are not interested in trying to enforce.
The hierarchical denominations exercise varying degrees of control over the existence, management and property of local congregations. Some can take total control if the numerical membership of a local church declines to a point below which the local church is no longer viable or its property is on the verge of abandonment. Congregational denominations may exercise similar varying degrees of control. Both tend to remain uninvolved locally until summoned or collapse of the local church appears imminent.
In Eltingville Lutheran Church v Rimbo, 2019 NY Slip Op. 05957 (NY App. 2019), the denomination asserted control over the local church when numerical membership of the local church appeared to the denomination to make the local church no longer viable. The local church operated a church and a school on its property. The local church sued the denomination. The local church claimed the takeover violated the denominational governance documents. The local church also sought an injunction of the takeover alleging property issues could be disposed of applying Neutral Principles of Law. The trial court dismissed the entire case finding the entire dispute to be an internal church dispute to which no Neutral Principles of Law were applicable. The appellate court affirmed.
The learning from this is a repetition of the universal axiom that if the dispute looks internal to the church and may be resolved through application of the church or denominational governance documents there is no room for Neutral Principles of Law. The effort to characterize property control issues separately from other aspects of the dispute will only succeed where the property control issue cannot be resolved through church governance documents. As has been seen, muddled church governance documents and sloppy record keeping, such as board minutes, may require Neutral Principles of Law to fill the vacuum.