The Law Office of Kurt H King

April 4, 2012

Who Owns The Church Anyway?

Filed under: Litigation — kurthking @ 6:05 pm
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Does the local church own the church land and building, or does the denomination?   This question the Westen District of the Missouri Court of Appeals answered in its January 10, 2012, decision in the case styled Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian Church. On the facts of this case, the court of appeals held that the local Gashland Presbyterian church owned the land and church buildings, resolving this dispute arising out of Gashland’s dissassociation with the Presbyterian denomination.

In deciding the case, the court applied the “neutral principles” approach rather than the “rule of deference” to the church on religious matters.  The neutral approach holds that “there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without ‘establishing’ churches to which the property is awarded.”  (It is constitutionally taboo in this country for the government to establish a church due to the separation of church and state so fundamentally important to the founding fathers who wrote the  Constitution and  Bill of Rights.)    Applying  “neutral principles,” the court looked to: 1.  the Deed; 2. the local church’s Articles and By-Laws; 3.  the national denomination’s Constitution (although Heartland Presbytery, the local district governing body, was the actual party of denomination named in the lawsuit).  The analysis of these documents focused on whether the local church clearly expressed an intent to hold the land and building in trust for the denomination.

First–the deed clearly named the local church as owner of the property with no expression whatsoever of any intent to hold in trust for the district Presbytery or the national denomination (Presbyterian Church of the United States–“PCUSA”).  Indeed, the 1948 deed named “Gashland Community Church, Gashland, Missouri” as the sole owner.  The court notes on page 2 of 28 that with the 1948 deed, “Gashland constructed a church on the property.”  While not in the opinion, the history of that church as related to me when a member there is that the original members of Gashland built the original stone and beam sanctuary with their own hands–quarrying the stone at a local site, erecting beams, framing the roof, laying flooring, etc.  

With the deed supporting ownership by Gashland, the court then looked to the Articles of Agreement adopted by Gashland in 1948, and its amended By-Laws of 1987.  Here too the Articles pointed to ownership by Gashland free of any trust in favor of the denomination as Article VII provides that title to property acquired by Gashland “shall vest in the Gashland Community Church of Gashland, Missouri, in its corporate capacity.”   

But, part of the By-Laws of 1987 favored the denomination in providing that Gashland “recognizes that the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is, in all of its provisions, obligatory upon it and its members.”  And, “[n]othing in these By-Laws shall nullify or contravene the provisions of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and they shall be construed only in conformity therewith.”  However, these By-Law provisions conflicted with the Articles of Gashland and Articles control over By-Laws, so the denomination also lost this point to Gashland.

Third, the denomination argued that, standing alone, the Property-Trust Clause that first appeared in its Book of Order in 1981 and its Constitution in 1983, established a trust over Gashland church property.  This Clause basically states that legal title to all member church property, no matter how title is actually documented, is “held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”  However, the court clipped the wings of this one-sided unilateral imposition by the denomination, finding insufficient indicia of “some effective expression of Gashland’s agreement to be bound by [the Clause].”   Thus, the denomination’s self-serving attempt to seize ownership through the Clause crashed and burned for lack of sufficient proof that Gashland acted with like intent that its property be held in trust for the denomination. 

And so the court held that Gashland owns the church land and buildings, built and paid for by its members.

Food for thought as Gashland is likely not the only local church with this set of facts.

Kurt H. King

Law Office of Kurt H. King, 20 E. Franklin, Liberty, Clay County, Missouri 64068

816.781.6000

www.kurthking.com

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