There have been thousands of local churches who have left the United Methodist Church denomination through a disaffiliation process that ended on December 31, 2023. Now that the window of time for permissive disaffiliation has been closed, local churches that either did not consider disaffiliation, or who have been prevented from leaving by their annual conference, have asked is there are any options for them to leave. The answer is generally, yes. There are four conferences that are allowing local churches to leave pursuant to the “exigent circumstances” provision of the Discipline. As to other Annual Conferences, local churches need to examine state law and their own property deeds and corporate documents to see if they are able to leave and retain their property.
The United States Supreme Court has held that state courts have jurisdiction to hear religious property disputes and has left it to state courts to determine the parameters of the decision-making process. Most states provide a framework for local churches to leave and retain property. This blog provides the general review of legal principles and some concepts to consider when evaluating a religious property dispute.
The Adoption of Neutral Principles of Law to Evaluate Religious Property Disputes
In 1969, the United States Supreme Court shifted position its previous “deference” position, when it held the Constitution permitted civil courts to resolve church property disputes through a governing method known as “neutral principles of law.” Presbyterian Church in US v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 445 (1969) (“Blue Hull”). While still recognizing limitations under the First Amendment, the Court also acknowledged the legitimate interest civil courts have in adjudicating over such controversies. Thus, the Court found that “there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all religious property disputes, which can be applied”, without interpreting religious doctrine.
Where Blue Hull formally introduced neutral principles of law as a method for courts to resolve religious property disputes, Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979) elaborated on such method. Writing for the majority, Justice Blackmun found “the method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges. It thereby promises to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice.” Therefore, settling a church property dispute on the basis of “the language of the deeds, the terms of the local church charters, the state statutes governing the holding of church property, and the provisions in the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property,” is consistent with foregoing constitution principles. As the Jones Courtexplained:
Under the neutral-principles approach, the outcome of church property disputes is not foreordained. . . And the civil courts will be bound to give effect to the result indicated by the parties, provided it is embodied in some legally cognizable form. Id., at 606.
Thus, examination of religious doctrine or polity to resolve legal issues of property ownership, title, and rights, is obviated entirely. Through this method, civil courts remain within the constitutional confines under the First Amendment, while serving their legitimate interest in adjudicating over religious property disputes.
Application of Neutral Principles of Law
There are several trust, corporate and property law concepts to consider when evaluating a religious property dispute. One focus is the state trust code. Most states that have adopted the Uniform Trust Code which provides a trust is created only if the settlor properly manifests an intention to create the trust and a trust relationship. The Uniform Trust Code § 402(a)(2), a trust can only be created if several requirements are satisfied. Thus, if the denomination cannot establish the elements of an implied or express trust, there can be not finding of a trust under state law.
Likewise, a denomination cannot assert a trust if there is no signed or adopted document affirming the same. Most state Statute of Frauds provides that, “no trust concerning land, except such as may arise or result by implication of law, shall be created or declared unless by a written instrument signed by the party creating or declaring the trust or by his attorney.” The “trust clause” relied upon under a Cannon, Discipline or other denominational rule book is not one “implied by law” in order to be exempt from the Statute of Frauds.
Further, the mere association with a denomination does not give rise to a valid trust. A review of the South Carolina and Texas Supreme Court’s decisions are helpful in this regard. See, e.g., Protestant Episcopal Church in Diocese of S.C. v. Episcopal Church, 439 S.C. 284, 887 S. E. 2d 508 (2022), reh’g denied (May 24, 2023); Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas, 422 S.W.3d 594 (Tex. 2013).
Disputes within a religious entity have existed since the biblical times. Acts 15, 36. The United States Supreme Court has wisely set the parameters of evaluating religious property disputes through the adoption of, “neutral principles,” of property, trust and corporate law, a concept most states adopted. A thoughtful application of the law provides a path forward for local churches to retain their property when leaving a denomination in a religious property dispute.