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The Role of a Civil Court in a Religious Property Dispute

Not all religious property disputes involve a unanimous decision of a congregation. Typically, a majority of a congregation will vote to leave a denomination and retain their property, while a vocal minority votes to stay in a denomination and will seek relief from a court to stay in the property the majority owns and occupies. Those in the minority rely on a denominational book of rules, such as the Discipline of the United Methodist Church, or the Book of Order in the Presbyterian Church, USA to seek a court order allowing them to remain with the church property. The majority of those who wish to leave a denomination rely on state law and federal constitutional law to argue that a Court does not have the authority to make the decision of the ownership of religious property.

Below is a very brief overview of the role of a court in a religious property dispute.

Civil Court’s do not have authority to decide the ecclesiastical matters.

The principles limiting the role of civil courts in the resolution of religious controversies were first recognized by the United States Supreme Court in Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 728 (1871), over 150 years ago:

In this country the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.

The principles laid down in Watson have come to be known as the “deference rule,” which instructs that the right to freely practice religion encompasses a right to form religious associations and establish a system of governance, therefore. It is well established that in order not to intrude upon constitutionally protected religious autonomy, courts generally must defer to church hierarchy in the resolution of any ecclesiastical matter. The Watson Court reasoned that:

[W]henever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them in their application to the case before them. Id. at 80 U.S. at 727

Civil Court’s do have authority to decide (a) religious property dispute, and (b) the validity of a vote to leave a denomination.

However, civil court’s do have the authority to decide religious property disputes and if a vote to leave a denomination was proper under state law. In Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 445; 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. Ed 2d 658 (1969) the Court held that, “[i]t is of course true that the State has a legitimate interest in resolving property disputes, and that a civil court is a proper forum for that resolution.” Although “the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes…. [I]t is obvious, however, that not every civil court decision as to property claimed by a religious organization jeopardizes values protected by the First Amendment.” Id. at 393 U.S. at 449

Applying the commands of the First Amendment to the resolution of church property disputes in civil courts, the Court held that states may alternatively resolve such disputes by the “neutral principles of law approach”:

Civil courts do not inhibit free exercise of religion merely by opening their doors to disputes involving church property. And there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without “establishing” churches to which property is awarded. But First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.

If civil courts undertake to resolve such controversies in order to adjudicate the property dispute, the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern. Because of these hazards, the First Amendment enjoins the employment of organs of government for essentially religious purposes …; the Amendment therefore commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine.

Hence, States, religious organizations, and individuals must structure relationships involving church property so as not to require the civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical questions. Id at 393 U.S. at 449 (citations omitted)

A decade later, the Supreme Court affirmed and clarified the jurisdiction of a civil court to hear and decide a religious property dispute and a vote of a congregation in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979).  The Jones Court would later extoll “[t]he primary advantages” of the neutral-principles approach:

“it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organization and polity. 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.” Jones, 443 U.S. at 603.

Application – Civil Courts have the duty and authority to decide religious property disputes and if a vote to leave is proper but cannot decide ecclesiastical issues.

Applying the principles of deference and neutrality set forth by the United States Supreme Court and adopted by the most state Supreme Courts, it is clear that civil courts have no authority to determine who among the parties is the “True Church.” Kedroff  v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 73 S. Ct. 143, 97 L. Ed 120 (1952) (declaring unconstitutional a New York law intended to transfer control of Russian Orthodox churches in New York from the Patriarch of Moscow, the central governing hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, to the governing authorities of the Russian Church in America);

However, the ecclesiastical determination of who is and who is not the “True Church” does not control the fate of a local church property, nor does it control whether the majority vote of a congregation to leave a denomination was proper. Those issues must be decided under civil law. Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 603, 99 S. Ct. 3020, 61 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1979).

If you have a particular question concerning a religious property dispute, please feel free to reach out to Daniel Dalton or one of the professionals at Dalton & Tomich PLC to discuss your matter.

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