Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979)
When a local church decides to leave its denomination or when it splits into factions, the underlying conflict frequently revolves around issues of religious doctrine. When the conflicting parties each claim ownership of the church’s property, a court often must resolve the dispute and yet it must avoid inquiring into doctrinal issues. For a court to intrude into a doctrinal controversy would result in an entanglement with church affairs that would raise free exercise and Establishment Clause concerns. In Jones v. Wolf, the Supreme Court approved constitutionally valid methods for resolving these disputes without interfering with church autonomy.
By a majority vote, the congregation of the Vineville Presbyterian church of Macon, Georgia, left its denomination, the Presbyterian Church of the United States, to join a more conservative denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. The congregation’s majority, voting for the change, and the minority, still loyal to the liberal denomination, each claimed ownership of the congregation’s assets. In the Georgia state courts, the majority faction prevailed.
The state courts avoided inquiring into church doctrine and instead considered the relevant deeds. All the deeds named the local church’s trustees as grantees, except one that named the local church itself as grantee. The trustees complied with the wishes of the majority faction. The courts further agreed that there was no contradictory provision in the local church’s corporate charter, state statutes, or the denomination’s book of order. According to the courts, a religiously neutral analysis dictated that the majority faction owned the church property. The U.S. Supreme Court found the method of the state courts to be constitutional.
The Court thus reaffirmed its earlier holding in Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church that it violates the First Amendment for courts to decide theological issues in the process of resolving property disputes. Presbyterian Church, in turn, reaffirmed the main ruling in an earlier decision that was not decided on constitutional grounds but reflected an awareness of the philosophy of the First Amendment, Watson v. Jones.
The Court also expanded on its statement in Presbyterian Church that courts could resolve these disputes by applying the neutral principles of law developed for use in all property disputes, that is, the method used by the Georgia courts. Previously, the Court had also affirmed a case applying neutral principles, but only in a brief per curiam opinion, Maryland & Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc. Here, in a full opinion, the Court gave approval to using neutral principles of law to resolve a church property dispute.
The Court, however, also acknowledged another method that it had previously authorized for resolving the issue, deferring to the decision of church authorities. Under the deference method, in a hierarchical church, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the determination of the denomination would control. In a congregational church, such as a Baptist denomination, the majority of the local church normally would make the dispositive decision. In addition, a church could choose some other method for resolving the dispute. For example, a local church may have turned over control of its property to a regional or national board of the denomination. At the same time, the Court neglected to face the recurring issue of determining whether a church is hierarchical or congregational. The Presbyterian denominations, for example, seem to be hybrids of the two organizational models.
Furthermore, the Court stated that still other methods of determination might be permissible. According to the Court, ‘‘a State may adapt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes, so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or tenets of faith.’’ At the same time, the Court voiced its expectation that churches would restructure and state their property relationships in secular terms to permit a court to resolve disputes without encountering ecclesiastical questions.
Jones v. Wolf gives courts some latitude in resolving these difficult disputes while still avoiding intrusion into doctrinal matters. However, the cases often remain difficult ones. The central issue is often doctrinal, and yet a court must find a solution without addressing that issue. With the neutral principles method, courts also often must look to nonreligious language in ecclesiastical documents, even when one party claims that the language is infused with religious meaning.
The Court thus has offered ways to protect religious rights in disputes over church property. However, whether these methods resolve the disputes accurately remains an open question.
LOUIS J. SIRICO, JR.
References and Further Reading
- Rotunda, Ronald, John E. Nowak, and J. Nelson Young. Treatise on Constitutional Law: Substance and Procedure. Vol. 3. St. Paul, MN: West, 1986, pp. 424–432.
- Sirico, Louis J., Jr., Church Property Disputes: Churches as Secular and Alien Institutions, Fordham Law Review 55 (1986): 3:335–362.
- ———., The Constitutional Dimensions of Church Property Disputes, Washington University Law Quarterly 59 (1981): 1:1–79.
- Tribe, Laurence H. American Constitutional Law. 2nd Ed. Mineola, NY: Foundation, 1988, pp. 1232–1242
Cases and Statutes Cited
- Maryland & Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 U.S. 367 (1970)
- Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 449 (1969)
- Watson v. Jones, 80 (13 Wall.) 679 (1872)
See also Free Exercise Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; Free Exercise Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence; Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1872)