Law and the Church
May 1, 2018 § 2 Comments
Church bodies wind up in court from time to time. Often the dispute is over which ecclesiastical entity or faction of the congregation will own or control church property or assets. Both sides tend to want to charge the other with heresy, or violation of church polity, or something along those lines, and they try to draw the court into their dispute.
It was a dispute over ownership of church property that brought First Presbyterian Church of Starkville (FPC) and The Presbytery of Saint Andrew into litigation. The Presbytery claimed that FPC, which wanted to withdraw from PCUSA, held the church property in trust for the denomination. FPC argued that it had opted out of any trust arrangement. Both sides filed motions for summary judgment. In his ruling in favor of FPC, the chancellor pointed out that the issue to be resolved was ownership of the property, and not doctrinal issues. The Presbytery appealed.
In Presbytery of St. Andrew, PCUSA v. First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville, Mississippi, the MSSC affirmed the chancellor’s ruling that FPC did not hold the church property in trust for the Presbytery. Judge Randolph’s April 12, 2018, opinion for the 7-2 majority explains the standard that the courts must apply in determining ecclesiastical legal disputes:
¶20. Mississippi has adopted the “neutral principles of law” approach for resolving church property disputes. See Schmidt v. Catholic Diocese of Biloxi, 18 So. 3d 814, 824 (Miss. 2009); Church of God Pentecostal, Inc. v. Freewill Pentecostal Church of God, Inc., 716 So. 2d 200, 206 (Miss. 1998).
The neutral-principles approach “relies on objective, traditional concepts of trust and property law. . . .” Id. at 205. “It calls ‘for the completely secular examination of deeds to the church property, state statutes and existing local and general church constitutions, by-laws, canons, Books of Discipline and the like. . . .’ ” Id. (quoting Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of N.J. v. Graves, 83 N.J. 572, 417 A.2d 19, 23 (N.J. 1980), cert. denied sub nom. Moore v. Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of N.J., 449 U.S. 1131, 101 S. Ct. 954, 67 L. Ed. 2d 119 (1981)). Religious documents must be carefully scrutinized in purely secular terms without relying on religious precepts. Church of God Pentecostal, 716 So. 2d at 205-06 (citing [Jones v.] Wolf, 443 U.S. [595,] 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020, [61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979)]). If a deed, corporate charter, or religious document incorporates religious concepts in its provisions concerning ownership of the property, the court must defer to the authority of the ecclesiastical body so as to avoid resolving any religious controversy. Wolf, 443 U.S. at 604, 99 S. Ct. 3020 (citing Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese [v. Milivojevich], 426 U.S. [696,] 709, 96 S. Ct. 2372, [49 L. Ed. 2d 151 (19760])[sic]. Schmidt, 18 So. 3d at 824.
¶21. As the chancellor held, the underlying reason for the schism among FPC members and between FPC and the Presbytery is not the issue before this Court. The only issue to be decided is whether PCUSA ever had a trust interest in FPC’s property. We find that the chancellor properly found that it did not.
The opinion goes on to lay out an excellent summary of the law of trusts in Mississippi. We’ll talk about that tomorrow. For now, the main thing is to recognize that it’s not the court’s job to resolve doctrinal disputes or to usurp authority of religious governing bodies.
If you have a small-town, people practice, it’s practically inevitable that you will be asked to represent one side or another in a similar fracas. Feelings are hurt, emotions are raw, and things are said in anger that probably would be better left unsaid. The lawyers have their hands full trying to maintain control. My law partner decades ago handled some of these kinds of cases, and came to be known in the community as the “go-to” lawyer when schisms arose. He sued Ministers, Elders, Presbyteries, Bishops, Dioceses, and even Synods. In one of the last cases he handled before we went our separate ways, however, I told him that he had gone too far. He was suing an Apostle. To me, that just crossed a line.