As I have often commented in this space, I really don’t want to go chasing church property cases in the civil courts as they can vary so widely by jurisdiction. I am going to take this opportunity to update one situation I have previously covered in detail and use it as an opportunity to consolidate reporting on a couple more and in the process demonstrate the variety that there is, the moving target that it can be and the legal technicalities involved.
Let me begin with the legal landscape in Texas which I have written on to some extent before. In particular, I covered a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court back in August 2013 that set forth neutral principles as the standard of decision for the state. However, that decision, at least in my reading, left a little opening for a hierarchical church to make a claim under the trust clause.
Well, two decisions in the last couple of weeks don’t see it that way and the local judicatories won summary judgements over higher governing bodies in the trial courts on pure property ownership and Texas trust law arguments.
The first was a summary judgement in the case of First Presbyterian Church of Houston v. Presbytery of New Covenant issued back on February 16. (Thanks to the presbytery for posting the decision.) Being a summary judgement there is not a lot of analysis by the court. The critical point to be made is:
… the Court grants the motion finding that there is no genuinely disputed issue of material fact, and that Plaintiff is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
The Court further finds that there is no enforceable trust or property interest created by any version of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order or the Presbyterian Church of the United States Book of Church Order under the neutral principle factors set forth by the Texas Supreme Court in Masterson v Diocese of Nw Texas.
The presbytery’s Pending Litigation web page indicates they will pursue the appeal. The lawyer for the church has a press release on their victory and indicates he will continue to represent the church pro bono.
The second court decision issued on March 2nd similarly gives the Diocese of Fort Worth under Bishop Jack Leo Iker control of the property of the diocese in a partial summary judgement which did exempt one church property dispute from the order. This was a rehearing of the case where the original decision in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court decision previously mentioned. The Episcopal Diocese has indicated it will appeal.
We will see how these trial court decisions hold up in the appeals process.
On the other end of the spectrum we had a final decision this past December in the case of Peters Creek Church in Venetia, Pennsylvania. This was a case between a majority of the church that voted to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and a minority that voted to stay with Washington Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA). After seven years of legal wrangling and two previous decisions that favored the majority, a decision by the Commonwealth Court last April awarded the control of the property to the minority as the True Church. With the denial of review by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in October it was sent back to the local court to issue the final decision ordering the change of ownership and a negotiated solution. The two groups have been sharing the property.
The Commonwealth Court decision is a long but at points an interesting read as it determines the outcome based strictly on neutral principles and does affirm that a denomination can not create a unilateral trust in Pennsylvania unlike court decisions in New York, Georgia and California. However, the court did find that in their Bylaws of June 3, 2001, Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church did create a trust with the PC(USA) when it included the language:
…“nothing in these bylaws shall prevail over the [PC(USA)] Constitution,” and that the bylaws “shall be considered to include the mandatory provisions and requirements on local churches set forth in the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether or not incorporated by specific reference.”
Among other finding of error by the trial court the Commonwealth Court declared that a formal trust document need not be created for the trust to be in force and recognized. They further find that the vote of the congregation on November 4, 2007, to leave the PC(USA) was invalid.
Woven into the rational of the decision are the histories of the PC(USA) and UPCUSA governing documents as well as the history of Pennsylvania trust law. In the end they make the case that using only neutral principles and consideration of the timeline of the history of the church the congregation can not unilaterally leave the PC(USA).
The trial court relied on the holdings in Beaver-Butler and Calhoun as examples of other Pennsylvania cases that have upheld the ability of a local church to disaffiliate from a national denomination (March 31, 2010, Trial Ct. Op. at 15). Those cases, however, do not support the trial court’s conclusions because their facts make clear that, at the time the local churches disaffiliated from the UPCUSA, the predecessor of the PCUSA, the UPCUSA governing documents did not prevent local churches from unilaterally disaffiliating. Here, in contrast, the PCUSA Constitution, which Peters Creek Church recognized as obligatory on its members, provided that the relationship between the PCUSA and an individual church can be severed only by the Presbytery.
So at least in Pennsylvania, timing and what you have in your bylaws and articles of incorporation is important.
And while this case is interesting, the legal nuances are a good example of why I don’t go chasing every one of these church property decision.
And now to Kansas…
Back in October a majority of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, in Overland Park, Kansas, voted to disaffiliate from the PC(USA) and joint the EPC. There was a significant minority with 21% opposed. Control of the property is headed to court so there is not much to talk about there at this time.
However, there seems to be a pretty good back story on this one. A year ago there was an article quoting the church’s pastor as saying that the church was not looking to leave the larger denomination. But that article pointed out that this is the church home of Craig McPherson, a member of the Kansas legislature, who serves as an ordained officer in the church – a deacon. In last year’s legislative session he was a primary supporter of a Kansas House bill that was substituted for State Senate Bill 18 to clarify that Kansas judged church property disputes under neutral principles. The text, as amended by the House with McPherson’s input is included in an article in The Layman. Rep. McPherson published his testimony in support of a 2013 version of the bill. Last year the bill failed on the House floor but the Committee on the Judiciary, of which Rep. McPherson is a member, has reintroduced the bill in the 2015 session. According to the tracking page it is still awaiting committee action.
So there you have a selection of the church property cases recently in play across the country that have PC(USA) connections. If you want another interesting read consider the South Carolina decision giving control of a diocese, its property and its symbols (trademarks) to the group which has separated from The Episcopal Church. A unique case that probably has no impact on Presbyterian interests but one that gives the Episcopal equivalent of the Trust Clause, known as the Dennis Canon, very little weight.
So, enjoy that legal reading if you are so inclined. I might have a bit more to say on property from a PC(USA) polity standpoint in the near future.