A closely divided Commonwealth Court, ruling in a Washington County case, has set a precedent favoring the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in property disputes with breakaway congregations.
In a 4-3 vote, the court ruled that the title to the property of Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church belongs to those loyal to the denomination, and that this group, while in the minority, represents the "true church" with claim to the Peters Creek name and organization. The ruling overturned lower court decisions that had favored the majority of Peters Creek members, who had voted in 2007 to leave the denomination for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterians.
Washington County Common Pleas Court had ruled in 2009 and 2010 that the majority had claim to the property and acted within its rights when it voted to depart from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
But Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini, writing for the majority in a decision dated April 30, reversed those rulings.
He ruled that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s constitution makes clear that a congregation can't leave on its own and can only be dismissed by its regional governing body -- in this case, Washington Presbytery. Individuals can leave, he ruled, but civil courts can't meddle with church membership rules without transgressing on religious practices protected under the U.S. and state constitutions.
Judge Pellegrini did rule that courts can decide on church property disputes based on the same laws governing other nonprofit groups. He ruled that the Peters Creek church had voted, six years before the 2007 departure, to abide by all the rules in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) constitution. That includes a clause stating that a congregation holds property in trust for the presbytery.
This, he ruled was "unambiguous evidence of Peters Creek Church's intent" to bind itself to the church constitution.
But dissenting Judge Patricia McCullough wrote that the Presbyterian constitution has no legal force where it "interferes with the ability of the Peters Creek Church, an independently established nonprofit corporation, to establish and amend its bylaws" and decide to leave. Attorney Andrea Geraghty, who represented the Peters Creek majority, said her clients "are considering their next options," which can include seeking state Supreme Court review.
Scores of congregations in Pennsylvania and nationwide have left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in reaction to liberal trends in the denomination, such as its approval of ordaining non-celibate gays and lesbians.
While some congregations have negotiated financial settlements with presbyteries to leave with their property, others have asserted a unilateral right to leave. "With reference to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the effect of this case is huge," said the Rev. Jeff Tindall, a Presbyterian minister and an attorney who represented the loyalists in the Peters Creek church. The decision "clearly said under the circumstances of the Peters Creek case, the [church constitution] governs the ownership of church property. It also ... affirms our position that churches cannot self-dismiss."
The majority group has worshiped at the Peters Creek site since 2007, while the minority has met in rented space, and Rev. Tindall said there are no plans to change that until the legal appeals are exhausted.
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.