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The rules in church property fights can change at the state border.

Kirk of the Hills, a nationally prominent megachurch in Tulsa, holds a deed to its property and paid for the church's land, construction, and maintenance.

But because the 2,400-member congregation voted to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a judge ruled, it must turn the property over to its former denomination.

"We are disappointed by this decision, but not surprised," said Kirk of the Hills pastor Tom Gray. "We are hopeful that the Oklahoma Supreme Court will correct this injustice."

Had the church been in a different state, however, it might have kept the property.

Kirk of the Hills's case is one of the most visible among two dozen or so continuing PC(USA) property disputes nationwide and roughly 100 similar fights in various denominations. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake, says Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in property law and church-state issues. More cases could crop up as churches continue to withdraw from their denominations or split internally.

But each of these may have to be litigated separately, since each state sets different standards in deciding such cases. The 1979 Supreme Court decision Jones v. Wolf said courts cannot resolve "church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice," but did not say whether to use traditional law, church court decisions, or some other standard.

"A case the congregation may win in New York, [it] may well lose in Virginia or California," Tuttle said. Many states have not had clear rulings, leaving churches to guess the odds of winning a property battle in the courts. Several options are left for Kirk of the Hills and other congregations losing their property: they ...

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November 2008

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