On occasion, courts are called upon to adjudicate disputes between members of a religious organization, particularly disputes involving control of the organization’s property. For example, a local church may split into two factions over a theological issue and each faction may claim ownership of the church’s property. These cases pose serious difficulties for courts, as they raise concerns of judicial intrusion on the rights of the members of the religious organizations to define their own identity. The U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the question of the role of courts in resolving such property disputes in Watson v. Jones.
The Watson case arose when the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, divided over its denomination’s position on slavery. In May 1865, weeks after the conclusion of the Civil War, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church—the governing body of that church—instructed its local churches that when ‘‘when any person from the Southern States’’ should apply for membership or seek to serve as a missionary or minister, the church should determine whether such person was ‘‘guilty of voluntarily aiding the war of the rebellion’’ or of embracing the Southern Presbyterian church’s view that ‘‘the system of negro slavery in the South is a divine institution ... and that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern church to preserve that institution.’’ The General Assembly directed that such persons should ‘‘be required to repent and forsake these sins before they could be received.’’ That directive helped precipitate a split in the Walnut Street church congregation, with each faction claiming exclusive use of the church property. Litigation ensued and the Kentucky state courts ruled in favor of the pro-slavery faction. But some antislavery church members who lived across the Ohio River in Indiana sued in federal circuit court, using their diversity of citizenship as a basis for federal jurisdiction. The federal circuit court ruled in their favor and the matter was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed with the federal circuit court.
The Court in Watson articulated several principles that would have a significant impact on subsequent jurisprudence pertaining to the judicial resolution of church property disputes. First, the Court concluded that if the property in question had been given to the church with the express condition that the property be ‘‘devoted to the teaching, support, or spread of some specific form of religious doctrine or belief,’’ then ‘‘it will be the duty of the court in such cases ... to inquire whether the party accused of violating the trust is holding or teaching a different doctrine, or using a form of worship which is so far variant as to defeat the declared objects of the trust.’’ But in many if not most instances, donors have not contributed church property with such an express condition. Absent the existence of an express trust, the Court determined that civil courts should not resolve the question whether there had been a departure from the doctrinal position of the original donor.
In taking this position, the Court rejected the English implied trust doctrine pursuant to which church property was deemed to be held in trust for the propagation of the particular religious doctrines of the church’s founders. Under this implied trust doctrine, civil courts, when called upon, had the responsibility to determine which group of contemporary church members maintained fidelity to those original religious doctrines—even if the founders had not expressly required such fidelity. The Court in Watson rejected this view that members of a church are impliedly bound to conform to the doctrines adhered to by the church founders and that civil courts must enforce that obligation—and that civil courts should determine whether there has been a substantial departure from such doctrines. The Court did not expressly rely on the FirstAmendment in reaching its conclusions, but it did note that ‘‘the structure of our government has, for the preservation of Civil Liberty, ... secured Religious liberty from the invasion of Civil Authority.’’
The Court in Watson further held that absent an express condition, a civil court asked to resolve a church property dispute should examine the polity structure of the church in question. If the church is one with a congregational polity, pursuant to which each local church independently governs its own affairs, then the conflict should be resolved in accordance with the principles that govern voluntary associations, such as majority rule. In such a case, therefore, the court should simply defer to the judgment of the majority, rejecting arguments that the majority has ‘‘changed in some respect their views of religious truth.’’ On the other hand, if the church in question is one with a hierarchical polity, as was the case with the Presbyterian Church, pursuant to which each local church is subordinate to a broader church structure, then the civil court must defer to the position taken by the church hierarchy and ‘‘accept such decisions as final.’’ In sum, the Court in Watson concluded that civil courts should resolve church property disputes by deferring to the judgment of the highest appropriate authority in the church structure—which will vary depending on whether the church has adopted a congregational or a hierarchical polity. Applying this principle, the Court ruled in favor of the antislavery faction because its views were consistent with the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
The effect of the Watson decision was to limit the role of civil courts in the resolution of church property disputes. Although the Watson decision technically applied only to federal courts, the dictates of the decision have been widely followed by state courts confronted with similar disputes. In subsequent years, the Supreme Court has continued to rely on the framework established in Watson, although in Jones v. Wolf (1979) the Court concluded that civil courts resolving disputes over church property need not defer to the decisions of church authorities if the court can rely instead on authoritative documents that the court can interpret without having to make a religious judgment. Now, civil courts called upon to resolve disputes over church property can either defer to the highest authorities in the church structure, or apply neutral legal principles that do not require the court to make determinations about religious matters.
DAVISON M. DOUGLAS
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Judicial Resolution of Church Property Disputes