The legal fight playing out between the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and a tiny Middle River congregation is one of dozens of cases nationwide that are testing the limits of religious authority. It's an issue the Supreme Court has confronted more than once.
The Church of the Ascension in Middle River — like many local congregations before it — has argued that because it held the deed for its property, diocesan officials had no right to close the church two years ago, seize the congregation's bank accounts and take control of the real estate.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland — like many other dioceses — argues that Baltimore County Circuit Court has no right to rule on the dispute, because it centers on church doctrine, not secular laws governing property rights.
In the 19th century, the Supreme Court allowed state courts to defer to the religious organization's governing body in such disputes, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. But in 1979 the high 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 said.
This "neutral principles" approach permits a judge to rule on secular evidence such as property deeds and other documents — but not on religious beliefs.
Just weeks after that 1979 decision, the Episcopal Church complicated matters 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 Supreme Court had left this option open by saying state courts could consider such a rule when deciding property disputes.
Since then, when such disputes have come before state courts, judges 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," according to the Pew study. But the New York Court of Appeals and other state courts have come to a different conclusion.
Virginia was the site of one of the most recent, and most dramatic, 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.
Robert W. Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School, said that Maryland "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.