Churches that split from their denominations do not automatically lose their real estate, Maryland's highest court ruled July 24.
The case involves $40 million in property, including two sanctuaries, a Learjet, and 130 acres at pastor John A. Cherry's 24,000-member church. Reversing a circuit court ruling, Maryland's Court of Appeals said the circuit court erred in looking solely to church doctrine.
When it began as Full Gospel AME Zion Church in 1983, the church's articles of incorporation noted its "accordance with the Disciplines of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church." But when the church amended its incorporation documents in 1991, it deleted references to the denomination.
In 1998, when church leaders changed the name to From the Heart Ministries, the articles retained the 1991 language, which gave trustees authorization over the property.
Church law expert Richard Hammar told CT, "This case breaks no new ground since the court applied the traditional neutral principles of law in resolving the dispute."
But Jack Lipson, a lawyer representing Cherry's congregation, said, "It may mean that other churches and other denominations would want to go back and re-examine the charters and bylaws and other governing documents under which they are organized."
A longer version of Religion News Service's story is available online.1