In a judgment that has implications for mainline Protestant property disputes across the country, a California congregation has won the right to keep its property after breaking its affiliation with the United Methodist Church (UMC).

In December, the Supreme Court of California ruled against the nation's third-largest denomination—rejecting a request to review an earlier court decision that awarded the Fresno-based property, worth more than $1.5 million, to a breakaway Methodist congregation.

"We just praise God. This is his victory. This is his property," said Kevin Smith, senior pastor of the formerly Methodist church, renamed St. Luke's Church.

Smith said his congregation is "just relieved that [the case is] done, so we can go about ministry without having to worry about where we are going to be tomorrow or next week or next year."

The 180-member congregation severed ties with the UMC in 2000. Members, believing the denomination has departed from biblical teachings, sought to retain the church building, which parishioners had paid for over a 50-year period.

Since, according to Methodist church law, all church property is held in trust for the national church, the local Methodist jurisdiction, the California-Nevada Annual Conference, sued for ownership. It won the initial trial in 2002. But the Fifth District Court of Appeal overturned that decision last August. The appeals panel ruled that St. Luke's had indeed entered into a trust agreement. But it said that California statutes allow such trusts to be revoked.

The California Supreme Court's decision not to review the case made St. Luke's one of just two congregations nationally to win a denominational property dispute in a high court in recent years.

The Episcopal Church ...

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