Sunday, September 24, 2017

Tennessee Supreme Court: Resolves Approach In Church Property Dispute

In Church of God In Christ, Inc. v. L.M. Haley Ministries, Inc., (TN Sup. Ct., Sept. 21, 2017), the Tennessee Supreme Court, in a church property dispute, concluded that a break-away local church held its property in trust for its parent body, Church of God In Christ, Inc. The court held that in church property disputes, Tennessee courts should apply the "hybrid" version of the "neutral principles" doctrine:
In applying the hybrid approach, Tennessee courts may consider any relevant statutes, the language of the deeds and any other documents of conveyance, charters and articles of incorporation, and any provisions regarding property ownership that may be included in the local or hierarchical church constitutions or governing documents. But ... a civil court must enforce a trust in favor of the hierarchical church, even if the trust language appears only in the constitution or governing documents of the hierarchical religious organization.
The court also held that civil courts should defer to the decision of the Ecclesiastical Council as to who should be pastor of the church.

A concurring opinion by Justice Curry questioned the majority's treatment of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as a bar to jurisdiction rather than as an affirmative defense.  The Court also issued a press release summarizing its decision.