Church Schisms, Church Property, and Civil Authority

By Massey, Calvin | St. John's Law Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Church Schisms, Church Property, and Civil Authority


Massey, Calvin, St. John's Law Review


When human relationships fail, litigation often ensues. When those relationships are religious and doctrinal strife produces factional division, courts are limited to secular criteria to decide church property disputes. This sounds simple, but it is not. While courts must use secular criteria to decide church property disputes, there remains considerable uncertainty about the permissible latitude of those secular principles. The uncertainty stems from the Supreme Court's attempt to honor three principles that are in tension with one another: (1) autonomous church governance, which the Court sees as an aspect of the free exercise of religion; (2) the need to prevent civil courts from deciding issues of religious doctrine, an aspect of the ban on governmental establishments of religion; and (3) preservation of state autonomy to decide how best to accommodate these twin goals, an aspect of federalism. There are three principal problems with this tripartite objective. First, sometimes they conflict with each other. Second, and worse, this framework fails to take into account adequately the interest of individuals - united in local congregations of religious believers -to exercise freely their religious beliefs. Finally, embedded in this framework is a generally unrecognized potential violation of the Establishment Clause. This Article seeks to expose these problems, identify the unrecognized Establishment Clause violation, and present an approach that better protects the interest in religious freedom of local congregants while still preserving autonomy of church governance and limiting civil courts to adjudication of secular issues.

The generally unrecognized Establishment Clause violation is the provision by states of special advantages to hierarchical churches that allow them unilaterally to impose trusts for their benefit upon property held by local congregations. The approach advocated in this Article is that when hierarchical churches divide into factions, the principles of religious freedom embedded in the religion clauses compel civil courts to recognize the religious beliefs of a majority of the local congregation in deciding which faction of the divided church is entitled to the use of the local congregational property, absent some clear and wholly secular indication that the local congregation has given control of its property to the general church. The cost of this approach is a slight reduction in the discretion of states to specify decision rules for church property disputes, and a somewhat more controversial reduction in the degree of deference that civil courts should pay to internal church governance rules when churches divide into factions as a result of religious schism.

The general issue is poised for judicial reexamination in light of the incipient fracture of the Episcopal Church in the United States, as litigation between the general church and its secessionist elements has broken out in California and Virginia - and threatens to occur in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Illinois.1 The academic literature on the subject has focused on the need to avoid civil involvement in religious doctrine, but has reflected the Court's indeterminate doctrine by its lack of agreement concerning either the use of neutral principles or deference to internal church governance.2 There has been scant attention paid to either the Establishment Clause problems that can occur by such deference,3 or to the religious freedom interest of individuals and local congregations when a church of which they are a part has splintered into schismatic factions.4 Each of those issues is presented in the context of the schism within the Episcopal Church and is considered in detail in this Article.

Part I describes the varied nature of church organizations and the development of the constitutional doctrine that limits civil court involvement in the resolution of church property disputes. Part II explores the religious freedom interests of individuals and local congregations under conditions of religious division, using a Virginia statute that deals with this issue as the lens by which to examine the question. …

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