Thursday, March 21, 2019

Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine Governs Property Dispute In Hierarchical Church

In Holy Trinity Romanian Orthodox Monastery v. Romanian Orthodox Episcopate of America, (MI App., March 19, 2019), a Michigan state appellate court held that the trial court should have applied the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to a church property dispute instead of the "neutral principles of law" approach.  Bishop Ioan Duvlea served as the abbot of the Holy Ascension Romanian Orthodox Christian Monastery until he was demoted and defrocked after a church trial.  A faction supporting him conveyed property belonging to the monastery to Holy Trinity, a new entity they formed.  The court, ruling in favor of the parent church body said in part:
This case requires determination whether Holy Trinity, a monastic corporate entity formed by a schismatic faction that left the ROEA, could claim ownership of the property that the faction conveyed from Holy Ascension before dissolving it. The ROEA contends that Holy Ascension owned but held in trust for the ROEA, a hierarchical church, the disputed property pursuant to church documents governing the ecclesiastical structure, polity, rules, discipline, and usage of the church with which Holy Ascension affiliated itself and to which it submitted....
In this case, the trial court failed to consider whether the ROEA constituted a hierarchical religious organization and did not examine the nature of the relationship of Holy Ascension with the ROEA and the Orthodox Church in America. The trial court failed to consider whether the actual adjudication of the legal claims in this case required the resolution of ecclesiastical questions, including the relationships between entities within the allegedly hierarchical religious denomination. Instead, the trial court stated without explanation that it found the dispute in this case merely secular requiring it to apply the neutral-principles-of-law approach. In so doing, the trial court erred.
The record reflects that the trial court substituted its interpretation of canonical texts and ignored the decisions of the ROEA relating to government of the religious polity. The trial court disregarded the evidence presented by the ROEA that required it to abstain and defer to the ROEA’s resolution of the property dispute.