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Three things to consider when litigation is the only option to leave the United Methodist Church

We have had the distinct honor and experience in successfully litigating religious property disputes throughout the United States and helping local churches out of the United Methodist Church denomination. If your local church has run out of options to amicably leave the Annual Conference, there are three considerations to review prior to filing suit

  1. Constitutional issues – You can challenge the Trust clause in Court

Despite the many reservations that you may have about leaving a Methodist Church, you should know that church property disputes are not something new.  When it came to judicial decisions concerning the ownership of property, the dominant rule for roughly 150 years was the “English rule,” which required courts to award property to whichever faction of the church adhered to “the true standard of faith,” meaning the old established orthodoxy of that religious group.  This is no longer the rule.

In 1979 the U.S. Supreme Court changed the rule and concluded that civil courts have a rule to play in the “an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes.” For that reason, the Supreme Court held that state courts may use that neutral principles of law to determine whether the parties intended to create a trust. In the Court’s view, neutral principles “rel[y] exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges,” thereby producing outcomes reflecting “intentions of the parties.”  The key phrase is “may.” Most state court’s use neutral principals, while other state courts defer to the hierarchy.

  1. Your State law will control the outcome of your case.

Because states regulate property, congregants will encounter different rules in every state. In many cases applicable rules differ only mildly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Though differences may be apparent and their impact palpable, subtleties may nonetheless spell the difference between property retention and forfeiture. One must therefore look cautiously to respective state law for guidance. Key starting points include the state’s trust law, as well as court decisions within the state that interpret those provisions and reveal how courts might respond to claims in a particular church property dispute.

Trusts are essentially a conditional transfer of property. Like contracts, trusts are dependent on mutual consent.  In trust law, the one creating a trust is referred to as the settlor. The settlor transfers property to a trustee under certain agreed conditions, creating a fiduciary duty for the trustee. This means that the trustee has a responsibility to abide by the terms of the trust in fulfilling the prescribed duties to specified beneficiaries.

State-to-state there are many similarities in trust law, but it is important to remember that states, whether through jurisprudence or statutory instruction, create their own standards for trust law. Your state’s stance on the revocability of trusts is one of the most important things to consider. In some states, trusts are in fact revocable. In others, they may not be. Most commonly only the settlor will be able to modify or revoke an extant trust. But in any event there tend to be rules and exceptions that must be analyzed closely for alignment with your situation.

  1. Before you file, review, update and amend your governing documents and property deeds.

The local church incorporating documents and deeds is of critical importance when reviewing whether litigation should proceed immediately, or, if the documents should be amended prior to litigation. References to the United Methodist Church in a congregation’s articles of incorporation and deeds, for instance, may be problematic depending in what state the property is located in. For this reason, it is important to examine your congregation’s founding documents to assess how closely you may be tied to the general church.

The law continues to evolve on this topic, and it is very important to research and review the law in each particular state prior to taking action on the Trust Clause.  If you wish to learn more, please contact us to review your governing documents and property deeds. We look forward to helping your church remove itself from the Methodist denomination.

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