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South Carolina Court Hands Local Churches Another Win Over Denominational Trust Clause Claims

Written by Noel Sterett on June 23, 2020 Category: Church Property Disputes/Denominational Splits, First Amendment, Religious Institutions

All across the country, local congregations are deciding to leave their denominations and take the necessary steps to keep their properties. There is an increasing number of congregations seeking to leave the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, and Reformed Church of America. And while some congregations are reluctant to move forward in view of the costs and conflicts that come with leaving a denomination, others are finding that now is the best time to make the break. This is particularly true for congregations in South Carolina and Texas, where local churches have recently won important cases.

On June 19, 2020, the Court of Common Pleas in South Carolina ruled for a number of local congregations which had left the Episcopal Church and rejected the denomination’s claim to their properties–which have a total estimated value of over $500 million dollars. In May, the Texas Supreme Court also issued a decision which struck a blow to denominations’ trust clause claims and upheld the right of  local congregations to retain their property. Both courts applied what is called the “neutral principles of law” approach, which determines property disputes between religious entities according to the same generally applicable laws and legal principles which apply to property disputes between nonreligious entities. Even though the United States Supreme Court has long favored the neutral principles of law approach, some states have been slow to adopt it. But the trend towards the neutral principles approach will likely continue as more congregations are pro-actively asking the courts to uphold their property rights rather than be on the defensive when the denominations come for their properties.

The South Carolina case is also instructive because it shows that there is strength in numbers. Each congregation that stands up to the denomination helps other congregations make the difficult decision to leave and protect their properties. Dalton & Tomich PLC is actively litigating cases Methodist (UMC) Trust Clause and claims made by the Reformed Church of America (RCA) across the United States asserting the same arguments that prevailed in South Carolina and Texas. We are assisting, and stand ready to assist, additional local churches in South Carolina and Texas who wish to leave their denominations and retain their property. Now is the time for congregations to know their rights and take what steps they can to protect their properties.

If you would like to have your case evaluated, please contact Daniel Dalton or another professional at Dalton & Tomich PLC to review your case and provide guidance to separate and retain your property.

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