Friday, May 02, 2014

Pennsylvania Appellate Court: Property of Breakaway Congregation Belongs To PCUSA

In Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church v. Washington Presbytery of Pennsylvania, (PA Commonw. Ct., April 30, 2014), the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in a 4-3 decision held that the church building and other property of Peters Creek Church is held in trust for the Presbyterian Church USA, despite the vote of a majority of the congregation's members to break away and instead affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Applying neutral principles of civil law, the majority held that 2001 Peters Creek bylaw amendments bound the congregation to the PCUSA Book of Order (including its trust clause), and attempts in 2007 to revise the bylaws were invalid. The majority said in part:
[E]nforcement of Peters Creek Church’s commitment to the PCUSA is required by neutral principles if that commitment does not violate the laws of the Commonwealth. The non-profit corporation Peters Creek Church unequivocally incorporated into its own governing documents the mandatory provisions of the Book of Order, including the commitment not to disaffiliate without permission from the Washington Presbytery. Enforcement of those documents, in accordance with neutral principles, does not prevent any individual member of Peters Creek Church from exercising his or her religious preference to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, or any other church, or no church at all.
The dissenters, in an opinion by Judge McCulloch contended that no trust in favor of PCUSA was created and the 2007 vote to disaffiliate was valid.