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Judge upholds Alaska Missionary Conference’s property rights

 


 

 

 

April 16, 2004

 

By United Methodist News Service

 

Alaska Superior Court Judge Richard D. Savell has sided with the United Methodist Alaska Missionary Conference in the church’s property dispute with members of a former congregation in Fairbanks.

 

In a 27-page decision released April 13, Savell upheld the conference’s right to control the disposition of the property of the former St. Paul United Methodist Church in Fairbanks.

 

In 2002, the Alaska Missionary Conference voted 61-1 to discontinue the church. Afterward, some members of the former congregation denied the conference access to the church building. The conference then went to court to assert its right of ownership of the property.

 

In his decision, Savell ruled, “the property belongs to the AMC (Alaska Missionary Conference)” and ordered that the name of the dissident congregation, “St. Paul Inc.,” be removed from the title of the property. He also ruled the board of trustees of the Alaska Missionary Conference be listed as the legal, titled owner of the property.

 

“This is the right decision,” said the Rev. Rachel Lieder Simeon, superintendent of the Alaska Missionary Conference. “This has been a long and arduous process. We are deeply grateful for the prayers that have been offered as we have moved through this difficult time.

 

“We are very pleased that the actions taken by the Alaska Missionary Conference concerning this issue have been upheld in both the civil court and by our own Judicial Council,” she said. The United Methodist Judicial Council is the denomination’s supreme court.

 

“While we were confident that the courts would uphold church law, we recognize that this decision is painful for those who sought a different result, and hope for some healing to occur as this process concludes,” Lieder Simeon said.

 

A spokesperson for St. Paul Church Inc. said United Methodist officials expelled the church from the denomination’s membership and did not explain the reasons.

 

“A key element appears to be St. Paul’s decision to elect its leadership freely rather than accepting demands from the superintendent of the annual conference,” said Cam Carlson, in a written statement provided by the defendants in the case.

 

“During the two years since St. Paul was severed from the United Methodist Church, St. Paul has continued a rich and full program of worship, Christian education and fellowship.”

 

Carlson said the timing of the decision is “opportune” because it comes before the United Methodist 2004 General Conference convenes April 27. The denomination’s lawmaking assembly will meet in Pittsburgh through May 7.

 

“If this very dangerous precedent of expelling churches and seizing their property is allowed to continue in the United Methodist Church, any minority voice in any conference in the country could be silenced with no recourse,” Carlson said.

 

Lieder Simeon said the Alaska Missionary Conference intends to continue using the property for ministry in Fairbanks. The conference will work with the defendants to implement an orderly transfer of the property back to the conference.

 

An appeal may be filed, but Lieder Simeon said the conference is confident Savell’s ruling will stand.

 

Savell upheld the Alaska Missionary Conference’s argument that the case should be decided using the U.S. Supreme Court’s “neutral principles” test without resorting to any analysis of doctrine or theological position. 

 

In his decision, Savell referred to the denomination’s Book of Discipline regarding the ownership of property. He ruled that the section of church law known as the trust clause contains “no references to any theological tenets” and is “wholly secular” in its application to property.

 

Savell’s ruling follows a United Methodist Judicial Council decision that upheld the conference’s right to discontinue using the church. In a 2003 interview, Lieder Simeon explained that the congregation’s core lay leadership was “unwilling to be subject to the authority of the denomination” and would not take instructions from the pastor, superintendent or bishop.

 

The St. Paul members who were opposed to the discontinuance appealed it unsuccessfully. They also changed the church’s name on its local incorporation papers to “St. Paul Church Inc.” in an effort to retain ownership of the property, according to the court decision.

News media can contact Kathy L. Gilbert at (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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