Judicial Resolution of Church Property Disputes

Throughout American history, courts have been called on to adjudicate disputes between members of a religious organization, particularly disputes involving control of the organization’s property. Such disputes typically arise when a local church splits into two factions over a theological issue and both factions claim ownership of the church’s property. These cases pose serious difficulties for courts, because they raise concerns of judicial intrusion on the rights of the members of the religious organizations to define their own identity. Courts have differed with regard to the appropriate standard to apply when called on to resolve such disputes.

The U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the question of the role of courts in resolving such property disputes in Watson v. Jones (1872). The Watson case arose when the Walnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, divided over its denomination’s position on slavery. Both the proslavery and the antislavery factions claimed exclusive use of the church property. Litigation ensued, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme 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.’’ In most cases, however, there is not an express trust in place; absent such a trust, the Court concluded 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 on, 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 prior doctrines adhered to by the church.

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 has adopted 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 departed from the ‘‘true’’ doctrine of the church. On the other hand, if the church in question has adopted 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. 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.

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 were widely followed by state courts confronted with similar disputes. Moreover, although the Watson Court did not specifically consider the First Amendment, the Court in subsequent cases—in particular Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral (1952) and Kreshik v. St. Nicholas Cathedral (1960)—made clear that the First Amendment imposed limitations on the ability of civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical disputes that involve an interpretation of church doctrine.

The Supreme Court has continued to rely on the framework established in Watson, although in recent years, the Court has further clarified the proper role of civil courts in adjudicating disputes involving church property. First, in Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church (1969), the Court affirmed the principle articulated in Watson that civil courts should avoid resolving doctrinal disagreements when adjudicating disputes over church property, noting that ‘‘the First Amendment forbids civil courts from playing such a role.’’ In the Blue Hull case, two local churches in the Presbyterian Church in the United States had sought to leave that denomination and take their church property with them. A state court in Georgia had awarded the local churches the property on the grounds that the national denomination, in the view of the court, had departed from the traditional doctrines of the Presbyterian Church. The Supreme Court reversed, concluding that a civil court could not resolve doctrinal matters without infringing the religion clauses of the First Amendment. However, the Court did state, without elaborating, that a civil court could resolve religious property disputes if it could do so with reference to ‘‘neutral principles of law.’’ A few years later, though, in Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976), the Court continued to use the deference approach articulated in Watson.

But in Jones v. Wolf (1979), the Court elaborated on the ‘‘neutral principles’’ approach mentioned in Blue Hull. Jones involved yet another schism in a local Presbyterian church and a dispute over which faction should possess the church property. In Jones, the Court held that although civil courts could continue to defer to the church hierarchy when resolving church disputes consistent with Watson, they were also free to resolve these types of disputes by reference to the ‘‘neutral principles of law’’ approach articulated in Blue Hull. Under this neutral principles approach, civil courts could examine deed language, state statutes governing church property, and terms in local church charters and general church constitutions as a means of resolving property disputes. The Court explained: ‘‘In undertaking such an examination, a civil court must take special care to scrutinize the document in purely secular terms, and not rely on religious precepts.. . .[If] interpretation of the instruments of ownership would require the civil court to resolve a religious controversy, then the court must defer to the resolution of the doctrinal issue by the authoritative ecclesiastical body.’’ The four dissenters in Jones urged that the Court to retain the view first articulated in Watson that civil courts should defer to the judgment of the church hierarchy when called on to resolve church property disputes.

In the aftermath of Jones, 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. In the wake of Jones, lower state and federal courts have adopted various approaches to the problem of church property disputes. Some courts continue to follow the deference principle first articulated in Watson, giving deference to the view of the highest appropriate authority in the church. Other courts have followed the neutral principles test developed in Jones and have sought to resolve property disputes by interpreting relevant documents in accord with general principles of property and trust law, so long as such interpretations do not require a religious judgment. After the Jones decision, either approach is acceptable under the First Amendment.

DAVISON M. DOUGLAS

References and Further Reading

  • Gerstenblith, Patty, Civil Court Resolution of Property Disputes Among Religious Organizations, American University Law Review 39 (1990): 513–572.
  • Greenawalt, Kent, Hands Off! Civil Court Involvement in Conflicts Over Religious Property, Columbia Law Review 98 (1998): 1843.
  • Montgomery, Sarah M., Drawing the Line: The Civil Courts’ Resolution of Church Property Disputes, The Established Church, and All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Waccamaw, South Carolina Law Review 54 (2002): 203.

Cases and Statutes Cited  

  • Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979)
  • Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952)
  • Kreshik v. St.Nicholas Cathedral, 363 U.S. 190 (1960)
  • Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969)
  • Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976)
  • Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1872)

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