Court decisions that permitted local congregations to keep their properties after they withdrew from denominations were allowed to stand last month in decisions handed down by the U. S. Supreme Court.
The high court refused to hear appeals from the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. and the Maryland and Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God, which sought legal rights to properties of congregations that had seceded (see editorial, p. 26).
The decisions were a surprise. One seasoned reporter of the religious scene, Bob Bell, Jr., of the Nashville Banner, wrote that “church property rights became a whole new ball game” as a result of the court’s refusal to review the cases.
The Presbyterian case was up before the court for a second time. It involved two Savannah congregations, Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights, that withdrew from the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. in 1966 charging that the denomination had changed its tenets. Lawyers for the denomination sought to get title to the properties using the argument of “implied trust.” The idea behind this theory was that the congregations had been built up by people who went there because the churches were Presbyterian, and that the local trustees held the property for the denomination.
Georgia courts accepted this theory initially, but said that implied trust involved theological standards and that the two congregations were right in saying that the denomination had departed from its original theological base. The U. S. Supreme Court turned back the case last year, saying “First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church property litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.” The court declared that ...1
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