Church property disputes often arise when a disagreement – either among members of a congregation or between a congregation and its national denomination – leads to a legal battle for control of the congregation’s property. This can include not only the house of worship itself but also financial assets and even the right to use the church’s name.

A recent example is the ongoing property disputes within the Episcopal Church triggered by conflicts over the issue of homosexuality (see Property Disputes in the Episcopal Church). But key church property rulings date back to the mid-19th century, when several denominations split over slavery. At that time, many U.S. state courts looked to English legal precedents for guidance in resolving matters of contract or property law. In cases involving church property disputes, 19th-century American judges specifically looked to two English court decisions: Craigdallie v. Aikman (1813) and Attorney General v. Pearson (1817). These rulings had adopted what is known as the doctrine of “implied trust” to govern conflicts over ownership of church property. A trust is a legal arrangement under which ownership of property is designated for the benefit of specific people or uses; an implied trust is one that arises by unwritten rather than written agreement. As applied to churches, English courts declared that property was held in trust for the faction that was most faithful to the denomination’s traditional doctrine.

Some U.S. state courts also adopted what became known as the “English rule,” at least in part because of the significant tumult that was occurring in the U.S. during the 19th century over issues such as temperance, women’s rights and slavery. Divisions over such issues sometimes led to congregational splits. In such cases, the English rule typically protected the interests of long-time members of a congregation (who had likely financed the purchase or building of the church property) from subsequent innovations in doctrine or worship, even if those changes were ultimately embraced by a majority of the congregation.

Majority: Minority:
Miller Clifford
Nelson Davis

(Chase did not participate in the decision.)

The U.S. Supreme Court first considered the constitutionality of the English rule in 1871, in Watson v. Jones. The Watson case arose after a Presbyterian congregation in Kentucky split into two groups after a disagreement over the morality of slavery. Each group claimed to be the rightful owner of church property. Church members who opposed slavery argued that they were entitled to the property because the national church, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), had officially condemned the practice and required all congregational leaders to declare slavery – and the Confederacy’s secession – to be sinful. The leaders of the anti-slavery faction also had been formally recognized by the national denomination as the legitimate governing body of the congregation. However, the pro-slavery members of the church argued that the property was rightfully theirs, on the grounds that the national denomination had abandoned settled Presbyterian doctrine when it voted to oppose slavery. Furthermore, the pro-slavery faction claimed that the congregation had earlier withdrawn from the PCUSA and joined a rival body, the Presbyterian Church of the Confederate States. (After the civil war, the breakaway church changed its name to the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or PCUS.5)

In determining whether to award the congregation’s property to the anti-slavery or pro-slavery members, the U.S. Supreme Court said that it first had to settle on which legal standard to apply in the case. The court noted that for it to apply the English rule, it would have to decide whether authentic Presbyterian doctrine condemned or condoned slavery and insurrection. Alluding to the Establishment Clause, the court rejected the English rule, noting that American “law knows no heresy and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.” In other words, the court said, secular courts lack the authority or competence to determine what is or is not heresy or to decide other religious questions.

After deciding not to apply the English rule in this case, the Supreme Court considered which legal standard to use in its place. What could the court consult, if not Presbyterian doctrine, to determine whether the pro-slavery or anti-slavery factions in the Presbyterian congregation should get the property? The high court decided that there were three permissible ways to answer that question.

First, the court could consider any valid legal document (such as a deed or a will) that expressly mandated the use of the property for the promotion of a particular religious doctrine. The high court explained that when there is such a document, courts need not interpret which doctrine is central to the religious organization. Instead, courts may simply enforce the document’s terms as spelled out in the legally binding agreement. For example, the high court noted, if a deed clearly stipulates that a congregation may use its property only for the purpose of spreading the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a court would have the power to deny the property to a group seeking to use it to spread Unitarian doctrine. Such a ruling would not require the court to interpret Unitarianism, the Supreme Court said, it would only need to recognize that Unitarianism is not Trinitarianism.6

But often there is no legal document expressly and unambiguously imposing doctrinal conditions on the ownership or use of a church’s property. In such cases, the high court said, the principal factor in resolving these disputes should be whether the denomination in question has a hierarchical structure. If a congregation was part of a hierarchical denomination, the Supreme Court stated, courts should defer to the denomination’s decision about which faction of the congregation is entitled to the property.

Finally, the high court stated, if there is no unambiguous governing legal document and if the denomination does not have a hierarchical structure, a court should treat the religious organization as it would any other voluntary association. This approach would allow the dispute to be resolved by a majority vote of the congregation’s members, or according to any other procedure agreed to by a majority of the congregation.

After outlining these three options, the Supreme Court turned to the case at hand. In the Watson case, the first alternative was not available, because there was no legally binding document restricting use of the congregation’s property to the promotion of a particular religious doctrine. The court then asked whether the congregation was part of a denomination that has a hierarchical structure. In this case, the court found that the congregation was a member of the PCUSA, which the court decided was hierarchical in structure. Congregations in the PCUSA were subject to the governance of the general assembly of that body. The court therefore looked to the PCUSA’s resolution of the dispute at issue. In this case, the general assembly had required congregational leaders to take an oath denouncing slavery and secession; the pro-slavery leaders had refused to take such an oath, and, as a result, church authorities had disqualified them from leading the congregation. Consequently, the Supreme Court concluded, the anti-slavery leaders who had been recognized by church authorities deserved control of the congregation’s property.

Brennan Stewart
Warren White
Black Fortas
Douglas Marshall

For almost a hundred years, the U.S. Supreme Court did not alter the standard it set in Watson v. Jones. Then, between 1969 and 1979, the high court decided two important church property cases that upheld the Watson ruling but modified it in several important respects. The first of these cases was Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church (1969). Just as the Watson case had involved the most pressing social issue of its time, slavery, the Blue Hull Memorial case centered around some of the biggest issues of the 1960s, including women’s liberation, civil rights for African-Americans and the war in Vietnam. The case arose after two Georgia congregations withdrew from what had previously been the more conservative of the large Presbyterian denominations – the Southern-based Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). The congregations made the move after the PCUS, in the mid-1960s, authorized the ordination of women as ministers and officially expressed support for the civil rights movement and for the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling banning prayer in public schools.

After the two Georgia congregations voted to leave the PCUS, a tribunal of the national church ruled that their property should be held by the denomination until a new ministry, subordinate to the PCUS, could be developed at the two sites. The congregations filed suit, claiming that they were entitled to the property under Georgia law, which continued to use the English rule to settle church property disputes. Under the English rule, the congregations argued, the PCUS had forfeited its claim to the property because its liberal policies represented a substantial departure from traditional Presbyterian doctrine. A Georgia trial court and the state’s Supreme Court agreed with the local congregations and awarded them the property.

The PCUS appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Georgia courts’ use of the English rule violated the First Amendment by allowing courts to decide questions of religious doctrine. The high court agreed to hear the case and, in a unanimous 1969 decision, held that the English rule’s “departure from doctrine” standard was unconstitutional.

In striking down the English rule, the court reaffirmed its ruling in Watson v. Jones. But the court’s majority opinion, drafted by Justice William Brennan, also modified the Watson ruling in a subtle but important way. Brennan explained that the ruling in Watson, which originally had been adopted as a rule that would apply only in federal courts, was also binding on state courts. In this case, the constitutional principle established in Watson forbids courts from making legal decisions by interpreting religious doctrine. Brennan said the Georgia courts had violated this principle by applying the English rule, which required the state’s courts to determine whether the local congregations or the PCUS were more faithful to traditional Presbyterian doctrine. The U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the Georgia courts with instructions to resolve the dispute without using the English rule and by the methods spelled out in Watson.

When the case returned to Georgia, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the local congregations had title to the property even if the English rule did not apply. The Georgia court examined the legal deeds to the property and the congregations’ governing documents and determined that none of the relevant legal documents recognized the PCUS’ ownership claim. The PCUS appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the Georgia courts were required to defer to the denomination’s judgment about ownership of the property, but the high court declined to hear the new appeal.

Majority: Minority:
Blackmun Powell
Brennan Burger
Marshall Stewart
Rehnquist White

Ten years later, the legal issues raised by this second appeal returned to the Supreme Court in Jones v. Wolf (1979), another case involving a Georgia congregation seeking to withdraw from the PCUS. The case arose when a majority of the members of the Vineville Presbyterian Church of Macon voted to break away from the national church. Once again, the majority of congregants decided to leave because of what they perceived as the national church’s increasing liberalism.

Shortly after the majority faction decided to break away, a PCUS commission ruled that the still-loyal minority faction was entitled to ownership of the church’s property. The minority faction then filed a civil lawsuit against the majority faction to retain the congregation’s property. This lawsuit went all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled for the majority of the congregation (the breakaway faction). First, the Georgia Supreme Court said, the church’s deeds expressly conveyed the property to the congregation and not to the national church. Second, the national denomination’s Book of Church Order – which outlines the structure for Presbyterian Church governance – did not contain any language limiting a local congregation’s use and control of its church property.

The PCUS appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that under the high court’s decisions in Watson and Blue Hull Memorial, the Georgia courts were required to defer to the decisions of a hierarchical body. Because the PCUS commission had determined that the minority faction was the “true” congregation, they argued, the First Amendment precluded civil courts from reaching a different conclusion. By a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts are not required to defer to church hierarchy in resolving disputes over church property. Writing for the narrow majority, Justice Harry Blackmun reasoned that, in cases where legal documents do not clearly determine control of disputed property, the First Amendment permits states to take any approach to resolving such disputes that they choose, as long as the method chosen does not require courts to decide questions of religious doctrine, and hence violate the rule laid down in Watson.

The decision in Jones v. Wolf thus affirms two basic principles articulated in Watson – courts must defer to unambiguous directions in relevant legal documents, and courts may not decide religious questions. But in disputes where documents do not clearly identify who should control the property, lower courts are not required to classify the religious body as hierarchical or congregational, and, if the former, to defer to the decisions of the hierarchical body. Instead, Blackmun wrote, in cases where the documents are ambiguous, courts are free to choose among a variety of available options, as long as they do not need to interpret religious doctrine.

In such cases, state courts may choose to look entirely to the structure of church governance and defer to decisions made by hierarchical authority or, where appropriate, to votes taken within the congregation. Alternatively, courts may ignore such structures of authority entirely and resolve the dispute by looking exclusively to “neutral principles of law.” In other words, a court may examine any materials that it would normally examine in cases involving a similar dispute in a secular organization. These would include deeds of title, trust documents, articles of incorporation, congregational or denominational constitutions, or any other legal documents that can be interpreted by secular authorities.

Writing for the four dissenting justices, Justice Lewis Powell said that Blackmun’s majority opinion was likely to invite extensive intrusion by civil courts into religious disputes and thus bring about the same threats to religious liberty posed by the English rule that the Supreme Court had held unconstitutional in Watson and Blue Hull Memorial. Indeed, Powell declared, since church rules are invariably framed in explicitly religious terms, courts will either be forced to ignore the internal rules of a denomination because of their religious content or risk misconstruing the rules by interpreting them in a secular light. The better approach, Powell explained, is for courts to defer to a decision by the church’s highest authority if such a hierarchical structure exists, as it did in the PCUS.

Although the five-justice majority in  Jones v. Wolf concluded that the Georgia courts did not violate the constitution by refusing to defer to the PCUS, the high court nonetheless returned the case to the Georgia Supreme Court with instructions to clarify the state courts’ methods for resolving such disputes. Specifically, the U.S. Supreme Court said it could not determine whether the Georgia courts had awarded the property to the majority faction under the principle of majority rule or had instead based the decision on an inappropriate examination of religious doctrine.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the decision was based on a presumption of majority rule, applicable to all disputes within voluntary associations. The court went on to state that this presumption may be overcome by a clear statement, expressly detailed in the governing documents of the organization, establishing a different mechanism for resolving such disputes. Because the Vineville Presbyterian Church’s governing documents did not provide any other mechanism, the Georgia court concluded, the presumption of majority rule applied.

Since Jones v. Wolf, the U.S. Supreme Court has not decided another church property case, so this opinion provides the most recent high court ruling on the issue. In the more than 30 years since the Jones v. Wolf ruling, most state supreme courts have adopted the “neutral principles” approach rather than the “deference to hierarchy” approach in resolving church property disputes.7 Although the two approaches seem quite different, they often overlap because national denominations now know that, to prevail under the neutral principles approach, they need to ensure that a congregation’s deed or governing documents expressly reflect the national denomination’s claim over the property. If these legal documents clearly provide for the national denomination’s control, then a court will likely rule for the national denomination, regardless of the approach it applies.

But when the property documents are not clear, the two approaches can result in significantly different outcomes, with the deference to hierarchy approach favoring the national denomination and the neutral principles approach not clearly favoring either side.

The differences between the two approaches are illustrated in the most recent wave of church property disputes, particularly those involving the Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA). After the national organization ordained an openly gay bishop in 2003, some local congregations that opposed the ordination voted to break away from the national church, leading to lawsuits over whether ECUSA or the local congregation owned each congregation’s property. In courts that follow the deference to hierarchy approach, ECUSA has prevailed. But the results have been more mixed in courts that follow the neutral principles approach. For example, in 2009, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided such a lawsuit in favor of the local congregation, while the state supreme courts of Colorado and California have awarded the disputed property to ECUSA. (See Property Disputes in the Episcopal Church below)

Regardless of the approach applied, however, the underlying constitutional concern in these cases is always the same: The First Amendment prevents courts from resolving church property disputes in any way that would require a judge or other government official to interpret religious doctrine or rule on theological matters. This principle also guides how courts decide disputes between members of the clergy and their employers.

Property Disputes in the Episcopal Church

For more than 30 years, the Episcopal Church has been fighting in courts to enforce its claim over properties held by breakaway congregations and dioceses. The church has faced litigation in at least 20 states, as dozens of congregations have sought to withdraw from the church over doctrinal differences.

The Episcopal Church is by no means the only U.S. religious denomination facing these kinds of disputes. Other Protestant churches, including a number of Presbyterian and Methodist denominations, also are involved in similar litigation with breakaway congregations (see Internal Property Disputes).

The disputes within the Episcopal Church have become more intense in recent years, especially since the national church approved the election of an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003. Since then, numerous congregations and four dioceses have broken with the national church. Many of these have sought to join other, more conservative, church bodies within the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part.

Judicial decisions in these property cases reflect the diversity of legal approaches endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Some states continue to use the standard set in Watson v. Jones (1871), which requires courts to determine whether the church has a hierarchical structure and, if so, to follow the decision of the highest ecclesiastical body about which faction of the congregation is entitled to the property. This standard heavily favors the national church since courts have determined that the Episcopal Church is indeed hierarchical. In Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts v. Devine (2003), for example, a state appellate court in Massachusetts applied the Watson standard and upheld the claim of the national church and the Diocese of Massachusetts to the property of a congregation that sought to withdraw from the denomination. When the congregation moved to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church, the diocese placed the congregation under its direct control and claimed ownership of the congregation’s assets. The court enforced the diocese’s actions, finding that they reflected the legally binding decisions of a hierarchical church body.

A majority of states, however, follow what is known as the “neutral principles” approach, which was approved by the Supreme Court in Jones v. Wolf (1979). In this ruling, the Supreme Court said courts could apply the same legal principles to church property disputes as they would apply to a similar lawsuit involving a secular group.

In states that follow this approach, litigation over Episcopal Church property has been much more complicated, and the outcome has been less predictable. The key question in these jurisdictions tends to be the legal significance of a rule adopted by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in 1979, just weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones v. Wolf. The 1979 rule states that the property of each local congregation is held in trust for the national church and the congregation’s diocese but that it is under the congregation’s control as long as the congregation remains a part of the national church. In its ruling in Jones, the high court had indicated that lower courts could give weight to such language in church constitutions when resolving property disputes.

But Jones v. Wolf did not address or answer one crucial question: May a national denomination, such as the Episcopal Church, unilaterally impose a trust arrangement on property that it does not own? Ordinarily, restrictions on property may be imposed only with the consent of those who hold legal title to the property. In All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. Episcopal Church (2009), the South Carolina Supreme Court decided that the local congregation did not hold its property in trust for the national Episcopal Church or the diocese. The court traced the ownership of the congregation’s property back to the 18th century and determined that title was held in the name of the congregation alone. The court then held that the rule adopted by the Episcopal General Convention in 1979 did not impose a trust arrangement on the property because the congregation never expressly agreed to be bound by its terms. The withdrawing congregation thus secured clear title to its property.

Most state courts, however, have reached the opposite conclusion, determining that the 1979 rule does impose an enforceable trust on behalf of the national church and its dioceses. These courts have taken somewhat different approaches in addressing the problem of congregational consent to the trust provision adopted by the church in 1979. For example, in Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v. Harnish (2008), the New York Court of Appeals ruled that even though the breakaway congregation joined the Episcopal Church 30 years before the trust provision was adopted, the congregation was bound by the provision because it had consented to be governed by church law and had failed to object to the rule for more than 20 years.

Other state courts, including the supreme courts of California (2009) and Pennsylvania (2005), also have grappled with the question of whether congregations have consented to the trust arrangement adopted in 1979. These courts have validated the provision by ruling that the national denomination’s trust claim is not a recent development but a historically consistent principle of the Episcopal Church. Under church law dating back to the 19th century, congregations are required to obtain diocesan approval before undertaking significant property transactions such as buying, selling, mortgaging or leasing real estate. The approval process, these courts conclude, shows that the national denomination’s claim on congregational property did not arise in 1979. Rather, the 1979 rule reaffirmed a longstanding claim to the property and made it explicit. Using this reasoning, these courts have enforced claims by the Episcopal Church and its dioceses to the property of the breakaway congregations.

Although courts in some states have resolved their Episcopal Church property disputes, the battle continues in other states. Probably the highest profile conflict is in Virginia, where about a dozen congregations have broken away from the national church since 2003. These breakaway churches include some very well-known and historic congregations, including The Falls Church and Truro Church, both of which claim to have provided a spiritual home to George Washington. Currently nine of these churches, including Truro and the Falls Church, are involved in litigation over the fate of church property. If the parties do not settle the claims, trial courts will resolve these cases using “neutral principles of law.” Whatever the lower courts decide, however, these cases ultimately are almost certain to be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court.


5 The PCUS remained primarily a Southern denomination until 1983, when it reunited with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, the PCUSA’s successor, to form the Presbyterian Church (USA). (return to text)

6 Most Christian denominations teach that God exists in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and that each is separate and, at the same time, one. Unitarianism holds that there is one manifestation of God (God the Father), not three. (return to text)

7 See footnotes 2 and 3 on Overview for definitions of these approaches. (return to text)

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