Friday, August 17, 2018

Court Not Barred From Adjudicating Church Merger

In Pure Presbyterian Church of Washington v. Grace of God Presbyterian Church, (VA Sup. Ct., Aug. 16, 2018), the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed a trial court's judgment enforcing a merger agreement between two local Korean speaking Presbyterian churches. Seven months after the congregations had been worshiping together, one of the congregations attempted to withdraw from the merger. The other congregation sued to validate the merger. The Supreme Court rejected the argument that it lacked jurisdiction under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, saying in part:
There is nothing inherently ecclesiastical about an agreement to merge two entities.  Although a dispute over the existence or effect of a merger agreement could turn on questions of church doctrine, that is not the case here. Contract law principles are “neutral principles” of law that courts can employ to resolve a dispute between churches. Whether a church voted to merge is a question of fact that does not require a court to resolve an “ecclesiastical” question. Although the merger agreement spelled out who would continue to serve as pastor and which entity would survive, neither of the parties, nor the court, relied on any theological or ecclesiastical principles to resolve the issue of whether the churches agreed to merge and whether Grace Presbyterian honored its commitment under the merger agreement.