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How does a Court decide who owns the property of a local United Methodist Church? Part 6

In the first blog of this series, I outlined the Supreme Court guidelines as to how religious property disputes are to be evaluated under state law. The second blog reviewed the governance of the United Methodist Church and how the “Connectional” nature of the denomination leads it to be more “Congregational” than “Hierarchal.” In the third blog of this series, I described the history and parameters of the Trust Clause as set forth in United Methodist Book of Discipline and also noted that all property law is subject to state law and pursuant to the Discipline, State Law prevails over the requirements of the Discipline. And in the fourth blog, I briefly review concepts of state law as they relate to the enforceability of the Trust Clause, focusing on Texas as a trial court in Dallas County recently found the Trust Clause to be unenforcible in a case involving Southern Methodist University. In the fifth , I dug a bit deeper into the weeds and examine Texas Statutory law and how it led a Court in Dallas County to the conclusion that the Methodist Trust Clause is unenforcible.

In this blog, I will address those states who either apply the deference standard or have state laws that have adopted the Discipline as the only means of resolving religious property disputes of local Methodist Churches who wish to leave the United Methodist Church denomination.

State laws adopting the Discipline and State Courts applying deference to Religious Property Disputes.

At one point in time, the Bishops within the United Methodist Church held an incredible amount of power in the secular world. Concerned that their local churches would depart and their never-ending source of revenue would be eliminated, the Bishops in several states persuaded the state legislatures to adopt state laws that provided if any local Methodist Church in their state left the denomination, all property would be awarded by State law, to the Annual Conference. In other states, the Bishops used their political influence with state court appellate judges persuading them that the court should adopt the deference approach to religious property dispute. The question I am asked is what can a local church do if they are subject to these abhorrent state laws and state court decisions. There are options.

The first option is to talk with the Conference to see if they would be willing to negotiate a resolution using the Taylor Disaffiliation Plan, also known as Section 2553 of the Book of Discipline. There are small windows of time where Conferences are demonstrating willingness to allow local churches to leave for a reasonable amount of money. These are Conferences that have been historically difficult. If you are in a Conference that has been challenging with respect to the leaders and Bishops, you may be surprised with a response to a request to depart. My message to you is please contact us to discuss this issue – the decisions of each Bishop, Treasurer, Conference and Conference Trustees change weekly and we can help navigate the issue.

The next option is to think about how attached you are to your property.  In most, and nearly all, of the religious property dispute cases, the true value of the property is only to the members. If your membership is not emotionally tied to the land and building, or can extricate itself from the emotions, the local Church may be better off leaving the property and starting over. I do not mean simply walk away. We can help set you up for success in your next property and need to work through several legal steps to assist in this regard.

The third option is to challenge the statutes and the case law in Court. This is a difficult option to accept as it is high risk, high reward. If you lose, you may lose your property or assets. But if you win, you open the door to all Churches your state to leave. It took several courageous churches to file actions and continue with them over time through appeals overturn unconstitutional statutes and unreasonable judicial decisions. You can be a part of this by challenging the statutes and case law. We anticipate doing both in 2022 and would love to speak with you about it.

The final option is doing nothing. This is by far the preferred option by many. Yet doing nothing leads to the slow death of the local church. Attenders, members and donors leave to Biblically based vibrant churches. Staff retention becomes more challenging and staff recruitment nearly impossible as people have no idea what the theology of a church is, and what it will be in the future. And there is a general feeling of a slow death within the local church – something that you may be experiencing now.

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 theAmerican Bar Association Book store or Amazon.


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