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Church sued Conference to stay open; Conference stipulates and allows Church to remain open during trust clause case

Hobbs Chapel United Methodist Church (“Hobbs Chapel”) began worshiping on its property in 1891. Its members have been the sole owner of land, the sole developer of buildings, the sole resource for financing all the real and personal property located at 3024 State Highway 177, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, 63701 and they employed and paid for their own pastor because the Missouri Conference has refused to provide a full time pastor for decades.

Nonetheless,  in January 2020, on the day the Church was being honored by the Conference for paying its apportionments in full for the prior year, the District Superintendent told the members of Hobbs Chapel that it is closing the Church effective April 19, 2020 and taking its real and personal property pursuant to the Methodist “Trust Clause” within its Book of Discipline.  The local church, which had no debt, owned valuable land, had cash assets, an older congregation and no Methodist Pastor was targeted for closure by the Conference even though it had faithfully paid apportionments for nearly a century and was larger than other churches in the district who had less members and paid little in apportionments.

After appeals to the local annual conference Bishop to reconsider the decision to close were denied, the members of Hobbs Chapel retained the law firm of Dalton & Tomich PLC to file a lawsuit and a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order, or in the alternative, a Preliminary Injunction, to preclude the Conference from taking or interfering in any manner with its property and religious community.

In the complaint and Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order, Hobbs Chapel argued that it is, and always has been, the record owner of the Property and, under the Establishment Clause and applicable “neutral principles of law,” including Missouri’s property and trust law, Hobbs Chapel is the only owner of its property and it does not hold anything in trust for the Conference. The “neutral principles of law,” approach requires Missouri courts to rely solely on “well-established concepts of trust and property law,” with the caveat that a court must not rely on “religious precepts” in interpreting the relevant documents nor will it “resolve a religious controversy.”

Upon review of the complaint and the Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, and prior to a hearing, the Conference stipulated to an Order, similar to the restraining order sought by Hobbs Chapel allowing it to remain open and free from interference from the Conference.

The case is now pending before the Hon. Benjamin Lewis of the Cape Girardeau Circuit Court for further proceedings. And the members of Hobbs Chapel continue to worship together as a church family without interference from the Conference.

If you would like a copy of the stipulated Order, or have questions about how to protect and preserve your property from the reach of the local annual conference of the United Methodist Church, please contact Daniel Dalton at Dalton & Tomich PLC to learn how we can put you in the best position to retain your property if you are being targeted for closure.

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