Dalton and Tomich white logo
Dalton and Tomich white logo

Alabama Supreme Court Sides with Harvest Church in Property Dispute with United Methodist Church

The Alabama Supreme Court has ignited a firestorm in the world of religious property law with its recent decision in the case of Harvest Church of Dothan vs. The Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. The case centered around a property dispute between a departing congregation and its denomination, raising questions about the authority of church doctrine in secular courts.

Harvest Seeks Independence, UMC Fights Back

Harvest Church, a megachurch in Dothan, Alabama, decided to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church (UMC) in 2022. Fearing the denomination might try to seize their property, Harvest preemptively filed a lawsuit seeking to secure ownership rights. The UMC, on the other hand, argued that the dispute was an internal matter governed by church law, not subject to the jurisdiction of civil courts.

Clash of Doctrines: Civil Law vs. Church Law

The crux of the case hinged on the concept of “ecclesiastical abstention.” This legal principle generally defers to religious institutions to handle internal disputes concerning their doctrines and practices. The UMC argued that Harvest’s attempt to bypass church channels and involve the court was a violation of ecclesiastical abstention. Harvest, represented by noted religious property dispute expert, Ryan French of the law firm Taylor Porter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, argued that under decades of Alabama and United States Supreme Court precedent, that civil courts should not abstain from religious property disputes.  

The Alabama Supreme Court sided with Harvest. This decision has significant implications for religious property disputes across the country. It sets a precedent where a congregation’s property ownership rights can be adjudicated in civil court, even if it contradicts internal church rules. This could potentially embolden other congregations considering disaffiliation, particularly those with substantial assets.

However, the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t answer all the questions. The case hasn’t reached the merits of ownership yet. The court only ruled on whether the lawsuit could proceed. Additionally, the specific details of Harvest’s property deeds and the UMC’s governing documents might not be applicable to other situations.

A Split Among Denominations

The UMC is facing a wave of disaffiliations due to theological disagreements. This decision could provide a legal path for departing congregations in similar situations, especially in states that follow a similar approach to ecclesiastical abstention. However, denominations with stricter control over property ownership in their governing documents might have a stronger case in court.

The Future of Religious Property Law

The Alabama Supreme Court’s decision is likely to be appealed, potentially reaching the federal level. This could lead to a landmark ruling that clarifies the boundaries between church autonomy and civil court authority in property disputes. Until then, the legal landscape remains uncertain, with potential ramifications for religious institutions nationwide.

Beyond the Legal Battle: A Divided Church

The Harvest Church case reflects a deeper issue within the UMC – a theological rift that’s causing congregations to leave. While the legal battle focuses on property, it’s ultimately a symptom of a larger struggle for the soul of the denomination. According to the internal records of the denomination, one third of its churches have left the denomination since 2019. Whether the UMC can reconcile these differences or face further fracturing remains to be seen.

This case highlights the complex intersection of religion and law. It’s a story not just about property rights, but about the evolving nature of religious institutions and the challenges they face in the modern world.

If your local church is thinking about disaffiliating from a denomination, reach out to Dalton & Tomich, PLC and Daniel Dalton to discuss your matter in greater detail.

Attorney Advertising Disclaimer

Please note that this website may be considered attorney advertising in some states. Prior results described on this site do not guarantee similar outcomes in future cases or transactions.