The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its diocese of Fort Worth have asked the United States Supreme Court to accept their appeal of the decision of the Texas Supreme Court who found in favor of local churches leaving the denomination and retaining their property. This application is one of many request made by denominations to have the Supreme Court revisit the issue of the ownership of religious property and the enforceability of denominational trust clauses – something the Court has refused to do on numerous occasions since it last looked at the issue in 1979.
The resolve of the local churches challenging the exceptionally well-funded TEC is a lesson in perseverance for local churches challenging denominational trust clauses in religious property.
The Procedural History
The Religious Property Question before the Court
The TEC’s application for leave to appeal to the United States Supreme Court request the Court to conclude that in religious property disputes, the denomination should keep the property – through a trust clause. You can find the application here. One important fact that you will not see in the application is the fact that the local church – on its own – paid for the land, developed the property, built the buildings and maintained the property for decades without any financial assistance from the denomination.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Jones allowed courts to rule on church issues of property as long as they followed “neutral principles,” that is, looking at state contract, trust law, corporate law and property laws in making a determination on religious property disputes. State Courts have since decided to either (1) apply neutral principals strictly, (2) apply a hybrid of neutral principals and deference, or (3) applied deference – when evaluating religious property disputes.
Will the Supreme Court grant the appeal? Perhaps. We have three new Justices that have been appointed to the Court since 2014 and they may wish to pursue this issue. It is important to keep an eye on this case as it relates to the Methodist Trust Clause. Clarity in the law would be welcomed, especially if the Court finds for the local Church.
The professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC have worked with dozens of local churches across the United States that have left – and are in the process of leaving – the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Reformed Church denominations which have resulted in the local Churches keeping their property. Contact Dan Dalton to discuss your case and learn how we can serve as your guide through this process.
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In my role as Administrative Bishop for the Church of God, quite often we are faced with issues that involve local governments and municipalities. Many of these issues that arise in dealing with entities are land use related. I have found Dalton & Tomich’s experience and expertise in this area to be a valuable resource and asset in every situation.
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Dalton & Tomich’s expertise and experience helped us through a very difficult legal journey, ultimately achieving a favorable outcome. Their personal interest in helping us went “above and beyond” just the call of duty.