Court Upholds Ruling for Megachurch To Surrender Millions in Real Estate

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Prince George's County congregation that split from its denomination about 10 years ago must turn over tens of millions of dollars in property to its original church, an appeals court ruled in a lawsuit that has been closely watched by other pastors and denominations concerned about the control of church assets in such cases.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed a 2006 ruling by Prince George's Circuit Judge Sheila Tillerson-Adams ordering From the Heart Church Ministries, a megachurch founded by the Rev. John A. Cherry in 1999, to surrender almost $40 million in real estate, including three sanctuaries, houses and a large tract of property the ministry owns, to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

From the Heart Church Ministries was originally known as Full Gospel AME Zion Church, a congregation Cherry founded in 1981. AME Zion Church leaders asserted that property purchased by Zion churches belongs to the denomination.

The judges ruled that Cherry's affiliation with the denomination was well documented, noting that Cherry "agreed that From the Heart used 'AME Zion' in its name, followed the customs and polity of the denomination, and accepted the pastorate of ministers appointed by the bishop of AME Zion."

Thomas L. McCally, an attorney for the denomination, said his clients were pleased with the outcome, which was handed down this week.

"It's not a case just about church property. It's a much bigger issue of how a church is organized and how it governs itself," said McCally, who has been involved in the legal saga for about 10 years. "For AME Zion and other hierarchical denominations, this is about standing up for and protecting the documents and the polity and the guidelines that govern the church."

Cherry did not return calls seeking comment on the decision and on whether his congregation would appeal. Cherry, who handed over From the Heart Church Ministries to his son, the Rev. John A. Cherry II, in 2006, started the original Full Gospel church in a Suitland storefront with about 25 members. His church now boasts more than 25,000 members, with huge sanctuaries in Temple Hills and Clinton. The church accumulated much of the property at stake in the lawsuit since its split with the denomination.

The legal battle began shortly after Cherry started his breakaway congregation in 1999. He initially sued to retain the name of Full Gospel but later shifted his attention to establishing his church's rights to its property. AME Zion countersued.

In March 2000, a Prince George's circuit judge ruled that From the Heart must return all property. In 2002, the state's highest court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, reversed the decision and ordered a new hearing. Two years ago, another circuit judge ordered the handover of all real estate assets but allowed the ministry to keep its personal assets, including a Learjet, furniture, cars, trucks and television equipment. The appeals court affirmed that decision this week.

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