Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Churches Built on Sinking Sand: How Courts Decide Who Keeps Church Property Following a Schism

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Churches Built on Sinking Sand: How Courts Decide Who Keeps Church Property Following a Schism

Article excerpt

Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian Church, 364 S.W.3d 575 (Mo. Ct. App. 2012), transfer denied.


With a marked decrease in regular church attendance and the flowering of non-denominational churches across the United States, (1) traditional hierarchical church organizations are losing members in droves. (2) Such losses are exacerbated when denominations make controversial doctrinal changes, such as the ordination of women and homosexual clergy. (3) Local members can disagree so strongly with the decisions made by their national church that they choose to disaffiliate, oftentimes in favor of a denomination that more closely resembles their values and beliefs. (4) This has led to a flurry of litigation across the country in which the denomination seeks to retain all of the disaffiliating church's property, normally pursuant to a clause in the denomination's constitution that purports to create a trust relationship between the national and local church. (5)

The recent case of Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian presented the question of whether a denomination could, relying solely on the property-trust clause in the denomination's constitution, could create a trust relationship in which the local congregation held all church property in trust for the denomination. (6) In this matter of first impression for Missouri, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, applied what courts have called the "neutral principles of law" approach, which instructs courts to resolve church property disputes using "objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law." (7) The court found that a national church's property-trust clause, on its own, did not establish such a relationship. (8) With this ruling, the Western District established a framework of strict compliance for other Missouri courts to follow.

This Note will examine whether the "strict title" application of the neutral principles taken by Gashland is a more preferable approach than the interpretation and application of the neutral principles in other jurisdictions. This Note will discuss whether Gashland squares with the Supreme Court of the United States' prior decisions involving church property disputes and whether Gashland's strict title approach is most true to the principles set forth in the leading case on the issue, Jones v. Wolf. (9) This Note will first review the facts and holding of Gashland. (10) It will then chronicle the history of church property jurisprudence in Missouri and the Supreme Court of the United States. (11) Next, this Note will outline the reasoning of the Gashland court. (12) Finally, this Note will analyze the dicta in Jones that has led to the deep split in how to apply the neutral principles of law approach to church property disputes. Specifically, this Note will advocate for the application of the neutral principles approach outlined in Gashland on the basis that it represents the most accurate reading of Jones and because its application is most in line with the Supreme Court of the United States' First Amendment jurisprudence. (13)


Gashland Presbyterian Church (Gashland) was incorporated in August of 1948 and subsequently deeded a piece of real property by the Presbytery of Kansas City. (14) "The grantee [was] identified in the Corporation Warranty Deed as 'Gashland Community Church, Gashland, Missouri.'" (15) The deed stated that the property was granted "to Gashland in exchange for 'one dollar and other good and valuable considerations [sic].'" (16) The deed did not reserve any "beneficial, reversionary, or remainder interest to any other person or entity." (17)

The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) identifies itself as an "unincorporated association of '[Reformed Christian believers.'" (18) PCUSA is comprised of individual churches, such as Gashland, that are governed by the churches' pastors and elders, also known as sessions. …

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