From Casetext: Smarter Legal Research

Maryland & Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc.

U.S.
Jan 19, 1970
396 U.S. 367 (1970)

Summary

holding that a court's resolution of a church property dispute did not involve an inquiry into religious doctrine when the court had assessed the language in deeds, the terms of corporate charters, and the terms of a church's constitution

Summary of this case from Gregorio v. Hoover

Opinion

APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF MARYLAND

No. 414.

Decided January 19, 1970

Since state court's resolution of property dispute between church bodies was made on basis of state law that did not involve inquiry into religious doctrine, the appeal involves no substantial federal question.

254 Md. 162, 254 A.2d 162, appeal dismissed.

Alfred L. Scanlan, James H. Booser, and Charles O. Fisher for appellants.

Arthur G. Lambert for appellees.


In resolving a church property dispute between appellants, representing the General Eldership, and appellees, two secessionist congregations, the Maryland Court of Appeals relied upon provisions of state statutory law governing the holding of property by religious corporations, upon language in the deeds conveying the properties in question to the local church corporations, upon the terms of the charters of the corporations, and upon provisions in the constitution of the General Eldership pertinent to the ownership and control of church property. 254 Md. 162, 254 A.2d 162 (1969). Appellants argue primarily that the statute, as applied, deprived the General Eldership of property in violation of the First Amendment. Since, however, the Maryland court's resolution of the dispute involved no inquiry into religious doctrine, appellees' motion to dismiss is granted, and the appeal is dismissed for want of a substantial federal question.

Md. Ann. Code, Art. 23, §§ 256-270 (1966 Repl. Vol.)

The Maryland court reached the same decision in May 1968. 249 Md. 650, 241 A.2d 691. This Court vacated and remanded the case "for further consideration in light of Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church. . . ." 393 U.S. 528 (1969).

It is so ordered.


I join the per curiam but add these comments. We held in Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969), that "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. If civil courts undertake to resolve such controversies in order to adjudicate the property dispute, the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern. . . . [T]he [First] Amendment therefore commands civil courts to decide church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious doctrine." It follows that a State may adopt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith.

Thus the States may adopt the approach of Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall. 679 (1872), and enforce the property decisions made within a church of congregational polity "by a majority of its members or by such other local organism as it may have instituted for the purpose of ecclesiastical government," id., at 724, and within a church of hierarchical polity by the highest authority that has ruled on the dispute at issue, unless "express terms" in the "instrument by which the property is held" condition the property's use or control in a specified manner. Under Watson civil courts do not inquire whether the relevant church governing body has power under religious law to control the property in question. Such a determination, unlike the identification of the governing body, frequently necessitates the interpretation of ambiguous religious law and usage. To permit civil courts to probe deeply enough into the allocation of power within a church so as to decide where religious law places control over the use of church property would violate the First Amendment in much the same manner as civil determination of religious doctrine. Similarly, where the identity of the governing body or bodies that exercise general authority within a church is a matter of substantial controversy, civil courts are not to make the inquiry into religious law and usage that would be essential to the resolution of the controversy. In other words, the use of the Watson approach is consonant with the prohibitions of the First Amendment only if the appropriate church governing body can be determined without the resolution of doctrinal questions and without extensive inquiry into religious polity.

Under the Watson definition, supra, at 722-723, congregational polity exists when "a religious congregation . . ., by the nature of its organization, is strictly independent of other ecclesiastical associations, and so far as church government is concerned, owes no fealty or obligation to any higher authority." Hierarchical polity, on the other hand, exists when "the religious congregation . . . is but a subordinate member of some general church organization in which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a general and ultimate power of control more or less complete, in some supreme judicatory over the whole membership of that general organization."

Id., at 722. Except that "express terms" cannot be enforced if enforcement is constitutionally impermissible under Presbyterian Church. Any language in Watson, supra, at 722-723, that may be read to the contrary must be disapproved. Only express conditions that may be effected without consideration of doctrine are civilly enforceable.

Except that civil tribunals may examine church rulings alleged to be the product of "fraud, collusion, or arbitrariness." Gonzalez v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 16 (1929).

"[N]eutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes," Presbyterian Church, supra, at 449, provide another means for resolving litigation over religious property. Under the "formal title" doctrine, civil courts can determine ownership by studying deeds, reverter clauses, and general state corporation laws. Again, however, general principles of property law may not be relied upon if their application requires civil courts to resolve doctrinal issues. For example, provisions in deeds or in a denomination's constitution for the reversion of local church property to the general church, if conditioned upon a finding of departure from doctrine, could not be civilly enforced.

Thus a State that normally resolves disputes over religious property by applying general principles of property law would have to use a different method in cases involving such provisions, perhaps that defined in Watson. By the same token, States following the Watson approach would have to find another ground for decision, perhaps the application of general property law, when identification of the relevant church governing body is impossible without immersion in doctrinal issues or extensive inquiry into church polity.

A third possible approach is the passage of special statutes governing church property arrangements in a manner that precludes state interference in doctrine. Such statutes must be carefully drawn to leave control of ecclesiastical polity, as well as doctrine, to church governing bodies. Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952).

See, e. g., Goodson v. Northside Bible Church, 261 F. Supp. 99 (D.C. S.D. Ala. 1966). aff'd, 387 F.2d 534 (C.A. 5th Cir. 1967).


Summaries of

Maryland & Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc.

U.S.
Jan 19, 1970
396 U.S. 367 (1970)

holding that a court's resolution of a church property dispute did not involve an inquiry into religious doctrine when the court had assessed the language in deeds, the terms of corporate charters, and the terms of a church's constitution

Summary of this case from Gregorio v. Hoover

finding that local congregations held property without control by ecclesiastical superiors

Summary of this case from Tea v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese

affirming dismissal where "the [lower] court's resolution of the dispute involved no inquiry into religious doctrine"

Summary of this case from Pule v. Macomber

affirming the lower court's decision in a dispute over church property between the central church and secessionist congregations where the court had relied upon, inter alia, language in the deeds conveying the property, the charters of the religious corporations, and provisions in the constitution of the central church pertinent to the ownership and control of church property

Summary of this case from Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Tennessee v. Rector, Wardens, & Vestrymen of St. Andrew's Parish

providing examples of neutral principles of law that may be used to adjudicate church property disputes without jeopardizing First Amendment values

Summary of this case from Askew v. Trs. of the Gen. Assembly of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith Inc.

defining hierarchical and congregational organizations

Summary of this case from Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of S.C. v. Episcopal Church

dismissing the appeal for want of a federal question after the state court resolved a church property dispute by examining the deeds to the properties, the state statutes dealing with implied trusts, and the relevant provisions in the church's constitution pertinent to the ownership and control of church property, and found that nothing in those documents gave rise to a trust in favor of the general church

Summary of this case from Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of S.C. v. Episcopal Church

explaining that even when courts employ the deference approach and attempt to enforce the decision made by the highest ecclesiastical authority in a church, those courts "would have to find another ground for decision, perhaps the application of general property law, when identification of the relevant church governing body is impossible without immersion in doctrinal issues or extensive inquiry into church polity"

Summary of this case from Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of S.C. v. Episcopal Church

stating that even in applying the deference approach, "civil courts do not inquire whether the relevant church governing body has power under religious law to control the property in question. Such a determination, unlike the identification of the governing body, frequently necessitates the interpretation of ambiguous religious law and usage. To permit civil courts to probe deeply enough into the allocation of power within a church so as to decide where religious law places control over the use of church property would violate the First Amendment in much the same manner as civil determination of religious doctrine."

Summary of this case from Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of S.C. v. Episcopal Church

In Sharpsburg, the Maryland Court of Appeals had resolved a dispute over church property by construing state statutes governing church property ownership, the language in the deeds conveying the property, charters of the church corporations, and church constitutional provisions regarding church property ownership and control.

Summary of this case from East Lake Meth. Ch. v. United Meth. CH

indicating that courts may rely on "special statutes governing church property arrangements" which have been "carefully drawn" to decide property disputes

Summary of this case from Prince v. Firman

In Maryland Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 U.S. 367, 90 S.Ct. 499, 24 L.Ed.2d 582 (1970), the Court upheld a state court decision awarding property to local churches who withdrew from a general church where the state court based its decision on a state statute, deeds, and local church charters giving property control to the local churches.

Summary of this case from Fonken v. Community Church of Kamrar

giving effect to decision of local church corporation, "pursuant to a valid vote of the trustees and members," to separate from parent church organization

Summary of this case from Antioch Temple, Inc. v. Parekh

In Maryland and Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 U.S. 367 (1970), the court dismissed the appeal of a Maryland decision which held that in the light of Hull the court had not erred in a previous decision that awarded church property to local churches after considering (1) the Maryland statutes, (2) the express language in the deeds, (3) the charters of the local church corporations, and (4) the constitution of the general church with which the local churches were affiliated.

Summary of this case from Presbytery v. Grace Covenant Church

In Maryland and Virginia Eldership of Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 US 367, 90 S Ct 499, 24 L Ed 2d 582 (1970), the Court again had before it a dispute within two churches over the ownership of church property after a schism.

Summary of this case from Hope Presbyterian v. Presbyterian Church

explaining a civil court cannot probe into the allocation of power within a hierarchical church to decide governing church polity without violating the First Amendment in the same manner as determining religious doctrine

Summary of this case from Alexander v. Allen

In Maryland Virginia Eldership of Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 U.S. 367 (1970) (per curiam), the United States Supreme Court again approved a state civil court delving into the ownership and control of church property.

Summary of this case from Hawkins v. Friendship Missionary Baptist Church

In Sharpsburg there is a strong suggestion that such an implied trust may not be found to exist if the resolution of the question requires consideration of doctrinal questions and an extensive inquiry into religious polity.

Summary of this case from Draskovich v. Pasalich

In Maryland Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc., 396 U.S. 367 (1970), the Supreme Court of the United States dismissed the appeal of a denomination from a decision of the Maryland courts in favor of the local church decided by the Maryland courts, not on the deference principle, but on neutral principles, consisting of an examination of state statutory law, language in deeds, and terms of the church constitution.

Summary of this case from Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church
Case details for

Maryland & Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, Inc.

Case Details

Full title:MARYLAND AND VIRGINIA ELDERSHIP OF THE CHURCHES OF GOD ET AL. v . CHURCH…

Court:U.S.

Date published: Jan 19, 1970

Citations

396 U.S. 367 (1970)
90 S. Ct. 499

Citing Cases

Episcopal Church Cases

The Church of Palm Springs court came to its conclusion based on its reading of a quartet of United States…

Puri v. Khalsa

Under this doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention, "a State may adopt any one of various approaches for…