Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Who controls church property?

Religious Liberty | Lawsuit asks the Supreme Court not to privilege denominations over congregations
by Steve West
Posted 9/08/20, 08:44 am

When Northern California’s historic Menlo Church voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2014, then–Senior Pastor John Ortberg agreed to sell his home to help pay nearly $9 million to the denomination so the congregation could keep its property. Otherwise, the church would have had to find a new place to worship.

Many congregations have faced similar dilemmas in recent years as they parted ways with denominations over questions of Biblical authority, sexuality, and theology. The Supreme Court precedent in such disputes seems to indicate that courts should consider neutral principles of trust and property law to determine whether a local congregation or denomination holds the title to the church building and land. But the decision, made in James v. Wolf in 1979, left lower courts to determine whether denominations deserve absolute deference, and judges have struggled to apply the ruling ever since. The Supreme Court now has a chance to correct that.

Seattle First Presbyterian Church ran into similar problems as Menlo when it tried to leave the PC(USA). A Washington state appellate court decided the denomination owned the land First Presbyterian sits on even though the local church has always held the legal title. The Washington state Supreme Court declined to review the case, and the church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday.

First Presbyterian’s lawsuit questions whether courts must defer to a denomination’s assertion of ownership even when the local congregation’s name is on the deed. It’s no small matter: The historic church’s property, located in the heart of Seattle, is worth more than $20 million.

Becket’s Luke Goodrich said the Supreme Court’s approach has created confusion and impinged on principles of church autonomy embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. He said these disputes too often lead to “years of costly and bitter litigation,” when neutral principles of trust, contract, and property law should apply. He said how churches organize and govern themselves is not the purview of government: “This case offers the court an opportunity to give a clear way to resolve such disputes.”

Read more Liberties Sign up for the Liberties email
Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

Read more from this writer