May 5, 2009
Church property fight heads to Supreme Court
For about the past two years, I have had this hunch that sooner or later the US Supreme Court would be presented with a church-property dispute that would sharply question the role of the judiciary in settling disputes between a Protestant denomination and a local parish or congregation.
It looks like 'sooner' has arrived now.
About noon today (May 5), while Anglicans worldwide are watching events in Jamaica, where top leaders are debating the proposed Anglican Covenant, St. James Anglican, Newport Beach, California, released an press statement saying they would be appealing the decision of the California Supreme Court to the US Supreme Court.
Here's some of what the press statement said:
St. James Anglican Church, at the centerpiece of a nationally publicized church property dispute with the Episcopal Church, announced today that it will file a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court to resolve an important issue of religious freedom: Does the United States Constitution, which both prohibits the establishment of religion and protects the free exercise of religion, allow certain religious denominations to disregard the normal rules of property ownership that apply to everyone else?
I would have to agree the US Supreme Court should address this area. In recent years, the high court has not done as good a job as it might have on mapping the boundaries between church and state.
The issue here from my point of view is state and judicial intervention into the inner workings of voluntary religious organizations (denominations); and, based on the California Supreme Court ruling recently, the court's inappropriate preference for the religious institution versus the individual congregation.
Let's face it. For the vast number of American Protestant congregations, the relationship today with their denomination is mostly a one-way street. Send money to the HQ and get very little in return.
The leaders at St. James Anglican said in their statement:
Under longstanding law, no one can unilaterally impose a trust over someone else's property without their permission.
Yet, in the St. James case before the California Supreme Court, named Episcopal Church Cases, the Court created a special perquisite for certain churches claiming to be "hierarchical," with a "superior religious body," which may allow them to unilaterally appropriate for themselves property purchased and maintained by spiritually affiliated but separately incorporated local churches. St. James will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that this preferential treatment for certain kinds of religion violates the U.S. Constitution.
You can find the full statement here.
If you worship in a church that is part of a Protestant denomination, what do you get for that in return?
Is the relationship "until death do you part"?
Or, does your denomination allow individual congregations to dis-affiliate?
Post your comments below.
(Photo credit: St. James Newport Beach, interior.)