Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Break-Away Faction In Church of God Not Entitled To Property Ownership

In Blue v. Church of God Sanctified, Inc., (TN App., June 27, 2022), a Tennessee state appellate court held that in a property dispute between a break-away faction of a local Church of God and the National Body (as well as a faction loyal to the National Body, labeled the Mother Church), the National Body and its local adherents own church property.  The court said in part:

 We agree with the trial court’s determination that as a matter of ecclesiastical government, the procedure for separation of an affiliated member church from a hierarchical church organization is an issue over which civil courts do not have subject matter jurisdiction.... The trial court did not err in declining to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over Local Church’s initial request for a judgment declaring it to be a separate entity from the National Body....

The court went on to apply the "hybrid neutral principles" approach to affirm the trial court's conclusion that the local church property belongs to the National Body. It described the "hybrid neutral principles" approach:

 “[u]nder this approach, courts defer to and enforce trust language contained in the constitutions and governing documents of hierarchical religious organizations, even if this language of trust is not included in a civil legal document and does not satisfy the formalities that the civil law normally requires to create a trust.”

The court concluded:

 Although no ecclesiastical judgment is in the record, we conclude that the evidence presented at the summary judgment stage demonstrates that the National Body considered Mother Church to be the congregation entitled to possession and use of the Property.... Moreover, as the trial court found, Local Church had already sought disaffiliation from the National Body and had “appointed [its] own pastor, deacons, and trustees outside of the requirements of the [Manual].” We therefore defer to the National Body’s determination, acting through Bishop Hill, that Mother Church is the congregation entitled to possession and use of the Property and its associated personalty.