In 2005, I wrote about a low-profile court case involving a Presbyterian church in Orange County that could have far-reaching ramifications.
The First Presbyterian Church of Ridgebury had decided to leave its denomination, Presbyterian Church (USA), because its few remaining members did not like the denomination’s tolerant stance toward gays and lesbians nor its general leftward drift.
The congregation renamed itself the Church at Ridgebury and decided to take its stuff — its church building and property — with it.
As you might expect, the Hudson River Presbytery, the regional body of PCUSA, objected. The Presbytery went to court.
A 2006 ruling went in favor of the Church at Ridgebury, saying that the congregation was not obligated to listen to the mother church.
The decision was a big blow for the presbytery. Once insider told me that several churches would probably leave if they could keep their real estate.
The issue has been coming up for years in all the mainline Protestant denominations, where conservative or traditional congregations increasingly find themselves at odds with their denominations over “Culture War” issues.
The Presbytery appealed. And, this time, won.
Last month, the Appellate Division of NYS Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling.
The court ruled that the congregation failed to provide evidence that it owned the property in question:
With respect to the real property, the defendants submitted the deeds conveying the subject real property to them, which did not contain any express reversionary or trust provisions. They also submitted a title search listing Ridgebury Church as the record owners of the subject real property. However, the defendants acknowledge that the Book Of Order, a component of the constitution of PCUSA, contains language specifying that all property held by a particular church is held in trust for the national denomination. The neutral principles approach requires the courts to “look to the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property'” (Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v Harnish, 11 NY3d 340, 351, quoting First Presbyt. Church of Schenectady v United Presbyt. Church in U.S. of Am., 62 NY2d 110, 122, cert denied 469 US 1037). The express trust provision contained in the Book of Order defeats the defendants’ efforts to demonstrate their entitlement to summary judgment because the enactment of such a trust provision is one way in which the national denomination or Presbytery may ensure that church property is retained by the faction loyal to the national denomination and Presbytery upon secession of any particular church (see Jones v Wolf, 443 US 595).
The court further held that several provisions of PCUSA’s Book of Order “are further proof that the PCUSA’s constitution expressly provided that all church property in the possession of local churches remained under the ultimate care and control of the Presbytery of Hudson River.”
According to the Presbyterian Layman, a generally conservative publication/website that covers these issues with great interest, the Church at Ridgebury has few options: request permission from the NYS Court of Appeals to appeal; go find a new church; or reach a settlement with the presbytery.
This is a much-needed reprieve for the Hudson River Presbytery.
But we’ll be hearing more about these property issues.
In fact, the conservative Washington Times just ran an article about traditional congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American wanting to leave their denomination, but encountering opposition, even “bullying.”