Church property fight turns on Constitutional issues

The legal fight over land playing out between the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and a tiny Middle River church is one of the rare lawsuits filed against the denomination in the state. But it's one of dozens of such cases across the nation over 30 years that have turned on Constitutional questions that the Supreme Court has attempted to answer more than once.

The Church of the Ascension in Middle River – like many local congregations before it – argued that because it held the deed for its property that state diocese officials had no right to close the church two years ago, seize the congregation's bank accounts and transfer the deed to the state denomination.

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland – like many other state dioceses – argues that Baltimore County Circuit Court has no right to settle a dispute that centers on church doctrine, not secular laws governing property rights.

"The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits civil courts from refereeing disputes like this one over church governance," the diocese states in legal briefs.

Initially in the 19th Century, the Supreme Court did allow state courts to defer to the religious organization's governing body to settle such disputes, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

But the prevailing doctrine was settled in 1979 in Jones v. Wolf. In that case the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment "allows a court to apply the same legal principles to a church property dispute as it would to a similar lawsuit involving a secular group," the study states.

This is known as the "neutral principles" approach because it permits a judge to rule on secular evidence such as property deeds and other documents – but not on religious beliefs.

The Episcopal Church, however, complicated that ruling just weeks after that 1979 decision by approving a rule stating that "the property of each local congregation is held in trust for the national church and the congregation's diocese." The court had left this option open by saying state courts could consider such a rule when deciding property disputes.

"The Supreme Court is not going to impose a uniform standard of the neutral principles doctrine," said Robert W. Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School.

That's why it make sense that the diocese and the Church of the Ascension in Middle River are currently negotiating a settlement in their property dispute, said Tuttle, who helped write the Pew study.

"It legitimately could go either way," he said of the case.

That's because different states have ruled both ways. The South Carolina Supreme Court sided with a local congregation and said the 1979 "implied trust" rule did not apply because the church never "expressly agreed to be bound by its terms," the study states. The Church of the Ascension is making that same argument.

But the New York Court of Appeals and other state courts have come to a different conclusion. In 2008, the New York court sided with the diocese. It said the congregation – which was started three decades before the 1979 Episcopal rule – was bound to the implied trust because the church "had consented to be governed by church law and had failed to object to the rule for more than 20 years."

Virginia has been the site of one of the most recent – and most dramatic – property disputes: in 2007, 15 congregations broke away from the Episcopal Church. In March 2014, the Supreme Court declined to take up the last of the appeals from the congregations, letting stand a state court decision that awarded the properties to the Episcopal Church.

"There isn't any one path," Tuttle said. "There are three or four different ways to go about it."

And Maryland, he said, "doesn't have enough case law for anyone to predict with great confidence what 'neutral principles of law' means" in such disputes.

"If you want to litigate up to the Maryland Court of Appeals, you're taking a big risk – for either side," he said. "There's rarely going to be slam dunk cases."

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