Bill would help congregations in fight over control of church assets

March 18, 2012

Each day for months now, the Rev. Douglas B. Sands and several of his 32 members at the historic White Rock Church in Carroll County have gathered to pray, plan and plot their next move.

Their mission is to guard their 143-year-old church from seizure by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church, the presiding body for the District and parts of Maryland and West Virginia.

Late last year when members announced that they were breaking away, the United Methodist Church ordered the congregation out of the building and threatened to take control of White Rock’s assets. That move triggered a battle that is playing out in the Maryland General Assembly this year as a group of legislators in both houses seeks to repeal a little-known 1976 law that gives the denomination legal authority over the properties of its local congregations.

Sands, 78, hoping the law is repealed, is vowing to fight to keep his church.

“We aren’t going to let anybody take it,” he said. “I don’t care if I only have two members in here. We’re going to be here.”

Several breakaway church battles have been fought in Washington area courtrooms in recent years. This time, lawmakers have been asked to enter the fray by considering the constitutionality of the law at the heart of the dispute.

White Rock’s members, along with those of several other current or former United Methodist churches, argue that the law unfairly empowers the denomination to take control of churches that were built independently, including several by former slaves just after the Civil War, a century before the law was passed. Such property disputes should be handled by the courts, the congregations say.

In a hearing Tuesday before the House Economic Matters Committee, Sands and two other pastors testified that the conference is seeking to use the law to discourage congregations from breaking away, to fatten its coffers and to encourage the growth of larger churches by shuttering smaller ones.

Bishop John R. Schol, head of the Fulton, Md.-based conference, testified that the conference has 600 congregations with 150,000 members in Maryland and that 400 of those churches have fewer than 100 members. The asset trust law, he said, prevents congregations from walking away with property donated to the United Methodist Church.

“Churches are built on contributions,” and local churches don’t have the right to keep those contributions, he said.

No one seems to know how the “United Methodist asset trust clause,” taken from the denomination’s Book of Discipline, came to be state law.

But Schol said that more than 40,000 congregations nationwide abide by the rule and that other states “have laws regarding church trust clauses.” The rule has been challenged in court several times in recent years.

Maryland state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), when he was pastor of Gibbons United Methodist Church in Brandywine in 1999, split from the denomination with a majority of his flock, leaving a $6 million building the congregation had built. Muse, now pastor of Ark of Safety Christian Center in Upper Marlboro, was sued by the conference, and the parties reached an undisclosed settlement.

The Maryland law came to light a few years ago when the conference threatened to seize the assets of Sunnyside New Life Community Church in Frederick, then called Sunnyside Methodist Episcopal Church, after the church sent notice that it planned to break from the denomination.

The Rev. Kenneth Mitchell, pastor of the century-old church, said members voted in 2008 to leave after they became increasingly disgruntled with what they characterized as “benign neglect” of the church by conference officials. Sands spoke of similar issues at White Rock.

In a mediated settlement, the church paid $50,000 for the property to the conference, $40,000 in attorneys fees and additional costs of about $10,000. “So, in essence, we paid to keep possession of our own church,” Mitchell said.

The founders of the old churches intended to leave them for their descendants, he said.

White Rock was founded in 1868 when memberspurchased the land in Sykesville, cleared it and built the church.

“I’m the fifth generation of my family to worship at White Rock,” said Clayonia Colbert-Dorsey of Gaithersburg, who drives an hour each way every Sunday. “The church is in my mother's hometown, and it’s the burial place for at least six generations of my family, including my son, who would be 12 today if he had lived, who was buried there is 1999. My great-great grandmother, Anna Grooms, attended. We have a picture hanging on the wall that shows her in 1921, holding my great aunt, who was a baby.”

The Rev. Ernest Thomas, 71, is pastor of the 20-member Warren Community Church, formerly Warren United Methodist Church, in Mount Airy, where he has attended for “50-something years.” Thomas said he questions the conference’s motivation in seeking to close self-sustaining churches, even ones with small congregations. He said the churches are historically and culturally enriching for members because they provide a rare link to the past for African Americans.

He said his board of trustees, like many others, has a copy of the original deed to the property, which names the original board of trustees and subsequent boards as the owners, not the Methodist church. His father-in-law, Athur Luby, was one of the signers of the original deed.

“The law as it stands overrides the deed because they are saying the trustees of the church now are holding the property for the United Methodist conference, even though the church was purchased 65 years before the law,” Thomas said. “Nobody ever signed anything saying they were giving the church to the conference, but they claim they own it. How can that be right?”

Schol said all property in the United Methodist Church “is held in common for the work and ministry of the whole church.”

“If a congregation ceases to be a United Methodist congregation, the assets are used for the ministry and mission of other congregations,” he said, “to start new congregations and for mission work.”

But state Sen. Lisa A. Gladden (D-Baltimore) said the law blurs the line between the separation of church and state, and gives officials of the Baltimore-Washington Conference power that no other churches have in such property disputes.

Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), a co-sponsor of the House bill, said that no other faith has the words of its own bylaws written into state law.

“The practical effect on congregations that have built their churches . . . if they decide to disassociate is that they risk losing their entire investment,” she testified. “That can’t be what state legislators think is fair, appropriate or constitutional.”

Thomas said he was notified last year that his church’s assets were being seized and that the congregation should vacate the property. He recently found out that his church, which has been designated a historic landmark, is listed for sale for $75,000.

While both he and Sands have sought legal advice, they are hoping that the 1976 law will be repealed before their tiny congregations are forced to incur thousands in legal fees.

Sands, a retired United Methodist Church elder who has pastored several congregations, said White Rock’s struggle began in early November, when the church broke away. On Nov. 13, as members celebrated the church’s 143rd anniversary, Schol paid a visit, the first anybody at the church could remember.

“He told us that we had two weeks there before they took the property,” said Sands, who was among the Morgan State University students who participated in the Read’s Drug Store sit-ins in the 1950s.“I told him we didn’t need two weeks because we are not going anywhere.”

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