Indiana court rejects Presbyterian Church (USA) Property Claim

By Parker T. Williamson, The Layman, Posted Friday, March 12, 2010

Citing conflicting interpretations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order, and affirming that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits civil court interpretations of ecclesiastical documents, Indiana Judge Carl Heldt of the Vanderburgh Circuit Court has rejected PCUSA claims to a local church’s property.
At issue was an attempt by the Presbytery of Ohio Valley and the Synod of Lincoln Trails to seize property belonging to the Olivet Presbyterian Church, a former PCUSA congregation in Evansville, Ind., that left the denomination in order to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Heldt rejected claims based on a “trust clause” in the PCUSA constitution and based his ruling in favor of the local church on “neutral principles of law.”
“The evidence shows that the deed and documents of ownership specifically provide that the real and personal property at issue in this case are held solely by the Olivet congregation rather than in trust for the PCUSA,” said the court.
In a letter to The Layman, Olivet Pastor Dave Mills said, “We are grateful for the verdict that the court agrees with what we had understood from the beginning – that indeed Olivet has always been and should continue to be God’s steward of this property. We are also grateful for the prayers and encouragement of our brothers and sisters throughout the country who have been following these developments.” 

To affiliate or not to affiliate: That is the question

Presbytery lawyers contended that the Olivet congregation was, by virtue of its membership in the PCUSA, bound by the laws of the PCUSA, including its trust clause. If a church is a member of the denomination, then it must abide by the denomination’s rules, they said.
That may be true for churches “while they voluntarily chose to be affiliated with such denomination,” declared the court, but there’s nothing in civil law that prohibits a church from leaving a denomination, at which time it is no longer subject to the denomination’s rules.
Following examination of Olivet’s documents, the court observed, “… nowhere in the Articles of Incorporation or By-laws was it stated that membership [in the denomination] was irrevocable.” Thus, concluded the court, a congregation may choose to affiliate with the PCUSA and live under its rules, or it may choose to disaffiliate, thereby no longer being under its rules.
“Olivet agreed to abide by the governance of the church so long as they were a member, but church governance permits their departure and all agree they have departed and are following a new Presbyterian church governance. As Olivet has indicated, they had a voluntary right to put it in and the same voluntary right to take it out regarding when they follow or recognize church governance.”
Presbytery attorneys cited the Book of Order, stating that when a local church ceases to exist, its property reverts to the denomination. Olivet responded that the denomination may declare that a congregation is no longer affiliated with the PCUSA, but it cannot declare that a continuing congregation no longer exists. Obviously, the congregation does exist, and to say that it cannot exist would violate the First Amendment’s freedom of association.
The court found merit in Olivet’s contention: “There is no evidence that Olivet dissolved and in fact, the evidence is that it merged with a new corporate entity affiliated with another denomination … Olivet merely disaffiliated from the PCUSA.”

No legally cognizable trust

With regard to PCUSA claims to Olivet’s property based on the PCUSA’s trust clause, the court concluded that the clause does not meet Indiana’s criteria for a legally cognizable trust because there is no evidence in any of Olivet’s documents that it consented to placing its property in trust for the denomination.
“No written and signed express trust has been presented by either party, and thus the court concludes one must not exist … An express trust is one created by the direct and positive act of the settler by some writing, deed, will or oral declaration,” said the court.
“Actions by parties to attempt to impose a trust upon property owned by others are inconsistent with the civil law approach and/or a Neutral Principles Analysis of the manner in which property is put in trust for another …”
The court observed that PCUSA arguments on behalf of the trust clause are asking a civil court to interpret ecclesiastical documents: “Looking at the Neutral Principles Analysis, the basis of Plaintiffs’ assertion of a trust interest in all of the property of Olivet is based upon an interpretation of the Book of Order … Generally, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order is an ecclesiastical set of rules. Unless one is sitting as an ecclesiastical judge, little reference is needed to the Book of Order … If a religious organization wants to establish a trust interest in a property, they must do so through neutral principles and not through the courts being required to evaluate ecclesiastical views.”

Inconsistencies in the Book of Order

After hearing PCUSA and Olivet refer to various passages in the Book of Order, the court observed, “The Book of Order is cited by both parties and contains contradictory terms as it relates to this property dispute.”
PCUSA representatives sought to bolster their position by quoting the Book of Order trust clause (G-8.0201). Olivet replied, that the Book of Order is an ecclesiastical document which has no civil law jurisdiction. Olivet cited (G-9.0102): “Governing bodies of the church are distinct from the government of the state and have no civil jurisdiction or power to impose civil penalties. They have only ecclesiastical jurisdiction for the purpose of serving Jesus Christ and declaring and obeying His will in relation to truth and service, order and discipline.”
Olivet also quoted from other sections of the Book of Order in support of its contention that an ecclesiastical constitution cannot be construed as a property law document. It pointed to G-9.0102, stating that governing bodies of the church have only ecclesiastical jurisdiction. It cited G-1.0307: “All church power, whether exercised by the body in general or in the way of representation by delegated authority is only ministerial and declarative …” And it quoted G-1.0308: “An ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object and not intended with any civil effects.”
Noting the Book of Order’s apparent self-contradictions, the court said, “This conflict and the other potentially conflicting provisions in the Book of Order appear to this court to force an evaluation or determination of ecclesiastical questions or interpretations in the process of resolving this property dispute. This court declines to do so, based upon the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Indiana State Constitution, U.S. Supreme Court precedent and state court precedent.”
Heldt’s ruling rejects virtually every argument that PCUSA lawyers have been making in various property disputes across the country.

Courtesy of

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