As regular readers know I tend to wait until I have a full court decision to break down a court ruling. In this case, This is a preliminary ruling, technically a memorandum decision, and both sides have 10 days to file responses before it is final, so I am going to trust a news article. Risky thing to do but 1) the ruling as reported seems straight forward and logical even if a bit different than usual, and 2) from the full reading the article seems fair and balanced so it seems reasonable.
From the Kansas City area KCTV 5 News reports that Judge Kevin Moriarty has reached a preliminary decision in the case of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley and Heartland Presbytery. I have discussed this church before concerning some of the nuances with the divided congregation with the two groups, an ECO group and a PC(USA) group, sharing a building until this gets straightened out.
The article begins with a very nice discussion of the situation with quotes from all sides in the matter. Good on-the-ground reporting. It is not until towards the end that it mentions the court ruling late yesterday and how Judge Moriarty diverged from the traditional legal approach in Kansas, that of hierarchical deference, and instead used neutral principles in rendering his decision. To quote the article:
Moriarty said in his ruling that church law claiming the property was held “in trust” for the regional branch wasn’t relevant. The deed names the local church, not the Presbytery. The mortgages name the local church, not the Presbytery. If the presbytery wanted a claim, the judge said, they could have placed a provision on those legal documents when they signed over the deed to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley decades ago.
The building and property, he said, belonged to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, not Heartland Presbytery, which had filed the suit.
Now, in a “be careful what you wish for” twist, the decision continues. The property may belong to the church and not the presbytery, but with two groups claiming ownership to which does the property belong? To this the judge invoked ecclesiastical deference and said it was a church doctrine dispute and the civil courts should not get involved. Therefore, since the property was established by the PC(USA) and one group was recognized by the PC(USA) as the True Church then it gets the property.
A most interesting twist where the property does not belong to the PC(USA) in spite of the Trust Clause, but belongs to the PC(USA) congregation because of history.
As stated, this is the draft trial decision and it may change on final and is subject to possible appeal. When I have more details, and if worth another post at this time, I will probably just note at the top that this post has been superseded and point you at a new one.
In my reading of these property cases this is new legal ground. We shall see where this goes…