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U.S. courts address church property issues

7/17/2002 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

A UMNS Report By the Rev. J. Richard Peck*

The United Methodist Church has guidelines for handling disputes over church property, but that doesn't stop some cases from landing in civil courts.

The courts have handled several such disputes recently, and decisions on property are being awaited in California and Alaska. Those cases primarily involve attempts by members of congregations to leave the denomination and take their buildings with them. Such disputes tend to end up with favorable verdicts for the denomination, illustrating the resilience of the United Methodist Church's ownership rights.

Church officials believe the California and Alaska courts will follow the lead of others that have upheld what has traditionally been termed the "trust clause" of the denomination, a measure introduced in the 1700s by Methodist founder John Wesley to protect the security of the "preaching house" as a place for worship.

The clause, declaring that the title to all local church property is held by the annual (regional) conference, has been upheld by a variety of U.S. courts during the 200-plus history of the denomination in the United States.

"Wesley insisted on the trust clause so people would have a place to worship in a given locale," said Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, who led the church through some property disputes while he was leader of the California-Nevada Annual Conference. "Wesley made sure people understood the property belonged to the Methodists, and we've been faithful to that process for over 200 years."

Talbert said there are both practical and theological reasons to uphold the trust clause. "People who contribute to church have received benefits through their income tax deductions, and the money was given for the ministry of Jesus Christ through the United Methodist Church. We must ensure that it is used for that purpose."

Fight in Fairbanks

The Alaska case is unusual because the trust clause had been left out of the deed for Saint Paul United Methodist Church in Fairbanks. To date, the Alaska Missionary Conference has won the right to close the church, but disposition of the property has not been decided. Members of the congregation had gone to court to stop the conference from closing their church, but a superior court judge refused to issue a permanent injunction prohibiting the conference's action.

"The court has no jurisdiction to determine this question," said Justice Mary E. Greene, in a ruling filed July 2. "The court must avoid entanglement in an internal church affair and should not interpret a church's constitution or other internal policy."

Conference Chancellor Tom Dahl told United Methodist News Service that the court ruling follows the denial of a temporary restraining motion filed by a few members of Saint Paul United Methodist Church. That ruling enabled the conference to vote 61-1 to officially close the 61-member congregation.

The ruling does not affect the disposition of the church building, valued at $322,000, nor the parsonage, valued at $196,000.

Cam Carlson, a charter member of the congregation, told UMNS that the attorney for some of the church members has requested a declaratory judgment on the ownership of the church property. Dahl responded, "That may be true, but I have not been served."

Dahl reported that the church is now closed and the conference has the keys, but Saint Paul members hold the deed, and those papers contain no trust clause.

A few members of the former congregation have also petitioned to have the name changed from Saint Paul United Methodist Church to Saint Paul Church. Dahl said he won't oppose that request for a corporate name change as it has no bearing on the ownership of the property.

"The decision to close the 18-year-old church was a difficult one," said the Rev. Rachel Lieder Simeon, the superintendent responsible for Saint Paul. "The church was discontinued because after an 18-month assessment of the internal workings of the church, it became clear that the core leadership was unwilling to be subject to the authority of the denomination. They would not take directions from the pastor, the superintendent or the bishop."

On July 1, 2001, Bishop Edward W. Paup appointed Don Strait, a retired clergyman and former treasurer of the Rocky Mountain Conference, to serve as an interim pastor. The congregation was then asked to study what it means to be a United Methodist congregation. By October, Strait reported that the effort was futile, and there was no way a study would influence them. Carlson disagreed. She told UMNS the congregation complied with that request.

Conference leaders then asked all church officers to step down for a period of three years in order to allow new leaders to emerge, but some of them were unwilling to resign. Since conflicts continued in the church, Simeon told a late January charge conference that she would take the matter to the cabinet.

The cabinet subsequently referred the matter to the conference's administrative unit, which is responsible for property matters. That group agreed unanimously to concur with the superintendents' recommendation that the church be discontinued.

Strait left as interim pastor in March. That month, the bishop, the three superintendents of the 28 churches in the conference, and a lay observer from the administrative unit told the congregation of the recommendation to be taken to the conference's yearly business session, May 30-June 1. Church members were invited to attend the meeting.

"We wanted them to know how important this decision was, and we wanted to have an opportunity to talk with them about it," Simeon said.

Before the vote at the annual conference session, Paup said that in good conscience he could not appoint a pastor to the troubled congregation. However, he acknowledged that if the conference voted down a motion to close the church, he would do his best to provide pastoral leadership for the faith community.

"The legacy of the Wesleyan tradition is that we are custodians, not owners, and when we start acting like owners, we deny that tradition," the bishop said. He recommended, and the conference approved, that a two-thirds majority vote be required to close the church.

Conference members also agreed to allow non-voting members of Saint Paul to speak to the assembly. Four church members spoke in favor of closing the church and four opposed it. "We don't know why Rachel hates us," Carlson said. Others said there was so much conflict that the only sensible action is to close it.

Van Lawrence, a member of the church since 1996, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that the church has been dysfunctional since its beginning. "No Methodist minister wants to be there," he alleged. He pointed to Cam Carlson's "extremely strong personality" and political conservatism for the church's inability to grow and flourish. "She treats church affairs just like politics," Lawrence said.

Carlson said, "Lawrence seldom attends worship and comes only to some church business meetings where he yells at my husband Bob and me."

Paup told UMNS that following the 61-1 decision to close the church, one conference member told him that he had planned to vote against closure as he thought it was a matter of theology. However, after listening to the church members, he became convinced it was only about power and control.

Today the brown-stained, wood-sided church stands empty. The cross and flame logo has been removed, along with the words "United Methodist." "No trespassing" signs had been posted, but Carlson says her group removed them.

In the meantime, some members of the church are worshipping off site, while others have joined First United Methodist Church in Fairbanks.

"We fully intend to carry on as a traditional Christian church, worshipping God and making disciples for Jesus Christ," Carlson said.

Other cases

A split between members of a local church and the denomination also led to a court battle over who owns the property at Saint Luke's United Methodist Church in Fresno, Calif. Some 600 former members of the congregation and officials of the California-Nevada Annual Conference are expecting a ruling from the Fresno County Superior Court.

The conference and members of St. Luke's have been struggling with each other for two years, ever since the congregation withheld apportionments in protest of the conference's decision not to discipline pastors for participating in a same-sex union service. The members changed the locks on the church and refused admission to conference officials.

Bishop Talbert asked the Fresno County Superior Court to force the congregation to turn over the keys to the new locks. The judge rejected the request and said the case would have to go to trial to decide who should have control of the $1 million property. Talbert retired in 2000, and Bishop Beverly Shamana now presides over that area. A ruling from the Fresno court is expected soon. Meanwhile, the church is closed.

Last year, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld the trust clause and ruled that local church property belongs to the annual conference. That case involved the Elo United Methodist Church in Pickett, Wis., founded in 1846. In 1997, the 119-member Elo congregation voted almost unanimously to leave the denomination over doctrinal issues.

Church leaders disavowed the United Methodist Church, took down signs related to the denomination, tried to evict the United Methodist pastor and converted the church building and parsonage for use by the independent "Elo Evangelical Church."

Leaders in the Wisconsin Conference tried for two years to resolve the dispute amicably, but finally filed a lawsuit in order to preserve the property for United Methodist worship in the area. Five justices of the seven-member court upheld the conference's position.

In this case, the church members still got what they wanted. After the court decision, the conference sold the property to the congregation.
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*Peck is a free-lance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

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