Dennis the Menace?: The Dennis Canon, The Episcopal Church, and Neutral Trust Law
55 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2010 Last revised: 26 Mar 2012
Date Written: March 24, 2012
In 1979, the Episcopal Church amended its canons to include a provision whereby all dioceses and local churches agreed to hold their property in trust for the national church. The Dennis Canon, as it is known, was a response to a schism within the church and an attempt by the national church to preserve real property owned by local parishes. Many courts construing the effect of the Dennis Canon have found it applies even when common law trust principles would provide otherwise. However, the Supreme Court of South Carolina recently found it simply has “no legal effect” under South Carolina trust law. Given the growing dissention within the Episcopal Church, this holding has potentially broad ramifications as one of the country's oldest churches fights to control its property. This paper discusses whether United States Supreme Court's jurisprudence, specifically a hybrid rights analysis under Employment Division v. Smith, requires courts to give effect to the Dennis Canon and grant the Episcopal Church an exemption from neutral trust laws if those laws do not permit the church to enforce this canon.
Keywords: Episcopal, Church, Property, Dennis Canon, First Amendment, Religion, Association, Smith, Employment Division, Hybrid Rights
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