How does a Court decide who owns the property of a local church departing from The United Methodist Church? Part 1

The history of religious growth in the United States can be traced in no small part to the frequency of schism within religious organizations, which is to be expected where the First Amendment absolutely protects the right to believe whatever one chooses. One result is that the United States is a country of immense religious diversity. When religious organizations divide into factions, the property owned by the organization often becomes a point of contention.

The resolution of competing claims to ownership or use of local church property, though largely a matter of state statutory and case law, is guided by decisions of the United States Supreme Court interpreting the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Those decisions set the guidelines within which state courts are required to operate.  In this multi-part blog, I will provide a brief introductory discussion of the “neutral principles of law” method, approved by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequently adopted by a majority of state supreme courts

The United States Supreme Court precedent

In Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall 679, 20 L.Ed. 666 (1871) the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not prohibit civil courts from deciding church property disputes by choosing to defer to the property determination made by the highest ecclesiastical authority the dispute had internally been appealed to in a “hierarchical denomination” (such as an Episcopal diocese, a Methodist conference, or a Presbyterian presbytery). Significantly, though, this constitutionally-approved method (usually called the hierarchical method or the deference rule) was permissible but not mandatory.  States were left free to adopt other methods for resolving church property disputes so long as the method chosen did not require civil courts to base their decisions on religious concepts or on interpretations of religious doctrine.

The deference rule remains strong in about a half-dozen states today, and it almost always tends in usual practice to favor national denominations to the disfavor of local congregations.  This is not a surprising result, given that the ecclesiastical tribunals which consider such matters and to which the civil courts in those half-dozen states defer are created and controlled by the very denominations that are claiming ownership or control over local church property.  In fact, in most states the state Supreme Court has noted that such one-sided favoritism resulting from civil court deference to denominational authorities constitutes a forbidden state establishment of the hierarchical denomination’s religion, prohibited under state and federal constitutions.

Recognition of several problems inherent in the deference rule eventually led to the approval by the United State Supreme Court of still another method, the “neutral principles of law” method, which now governs resolution of church property disputes here in most states. In Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969) the U.S. Supreme Court first said that the neutral principles of law method was also a constitutionally permissible, alternative approach to resolving church property disputes in hierarchical denominations.

Ten years later, in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), the U.S. Supreme Court elaborated on the meaning of neutral principles of law and advocated its adoption by the states.  Under the neutral principles of law method, courts do not merely defer to ecclesiastical decisions.  Instead, while the courts take cognizance of the language in religious documents like denominational constitutions they are not to use religious concepts in interpreting them or give undue deference to those religious documents.  Further, courts are to especially undertake examination of all of the property-related documents which may bear on the question of consent and mutual intent — specifically, language in the local property deeds at issue, the local church’s corporate charter or articles of incorporation, local resolutions, minutes, correspondence, financial arrangements, and any other evidence relevant to asserting mutual intent and the relationship between the parties.

In the next blog, we will look at the governance of the United Methodist Church and how it applies to each state.

Should you have specific questions regarding your state law on religious property disputes, please reach out to Daniel Dalton at Dalton & Tomich PLC to discuss your case. You can read more about this topic in Daniel Dalton’s book, Religious Property Disputes, House of God, Laws of Man available at the American Bar Association Book store or Amazon.

Share: