Sunday, September 01, 2013

Texas Supreme Court Says Only "Neutral Principles" Approach Should Be Used In Church Property Cases

Last week, the Texas Supreme Court decided two cases involving a property ownership disputes between The Episcopal Church and break-away congregations.  In Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas, (TX Sup. Ct. Aug. 30, 2013) (opinion of court; concurrence; dissent), the Texas Supreme Court held that Texas courts should use only the "neutral principles of law" approach in deciding church property cases. Since the lower court had used the deference to hierarchical authority approach, its decision was reversed.  The justices then split on how the neutral principles doctrine applied in the case, involving a parish's amendment of its articles of incorporation and bylaws to withdraw from TEC and the Diocese and revoke trusts in their favor on the corporation’s property. Two justices dissented from the majority's guidance on the application of the corporation law, while two concurring justices thought that it was premature for the court to decide those fact-intensive issue.

In The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth v. The Episcopal Church, (TX Sup. Ct., Aug. 30, 2013), (opinion of the court; dissent), the court similarly decided that the neutral principles approach must be used in deciding ownership of property of the break-away Fort Worth diocese. However only 4 justices agreed with the guidance in the court's opinion on application of neutral principles in the case. Four other justices dissenting argued that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case on direct appeal from the trial court.