Ross "Buddy" Lindsay III receives phone calls every day from pastors who want his help wresting their church property from denominational control. As chancellor of All Saints Church in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, Lindsay has spent a decade immersed in church property disputes. He is one of only four Americans with a master's degree in canon law from Cardiff University in Wales.

In September, the South Carolina State Supreme Court ruled 5-0 in favor of All Saints, allowing the 800-member congregation to keep its 50 acres worth $20 million. Before leaving the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2004, the church amended its charter, declaring that it no longer accedes to the national constitution. The court ruled the national church did not retain clear ownership of the local church property.

"The All Saints case is a roadmap for other congregations to secure their property before leaving their denomination," Lindsay says. All Saints is emblematic of passionate struggles that pit scores of breakaway congregations and entire dioceses against mainline denominations, primarily TEC and the Presbyterian Church (USA). In court papers, denominations paint local churches as secessionists, while local congregations see themselves as defenders of the faith set against an apostate national church.

Each side believes the turf wars could impact the future of church-state relations, since the U.S. Supreme Court may get involved. Lindsay says, "If the Supreme Court rules for All Saints, it could largely be the death of Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches."

Some conservative congregations in the PC(USA) contend that when their denomination has made no financial investment in a local church, it should not stand to gain when a church attempts ...

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