On Resolving Church Property Disputes
52 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2016 Last revised: 18 May 2016
Date Written: 2016
In recent decades, major religious denominations have experienced some of the largest schisms in our nation’s history, resulting in a flood of church property disputes. Unfortunately, the law governing these disputes is in disarray. Some states treat church property disputes just like disputes within other voluntary associations — applying ordinary principles of trust and property law to the deeds and other written legal instruments. Other states resolve church property disputes by deferring to religious documents such as church constitutions — even when those documents would have no legal effect under ordinary principles of trust or property law.
We argue that both courts and churches are better served by relying on ordinary principles of trust and property law, and that only this approach is fully consistent with the church autonomy principles of the First Amendment. Only this approach preserves the right of churches to adopt any form of governance they wish, keeps courts from becoming entangled in religious questions, and promotes clear property rights. By contrast, deferring to internal religious documents unconstitutionally pressures churches toward more hierarchical governance, invites courts to resolve disputes over internal church rules and practices, and creates costly uncertainty.
Keywords: church property, Jones v. Wolf, neutral principles, church autonomy, free exercise, establishment, entanglement, property rights, trusts
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