The United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. may call a special session of its national General Assembly to consider legislation to protect church property that some church leaders fear is threatened by a recent Supreme Court decision. The decision also has ramifications for a number of other denominations.
In a case involving a property squabble in a Georgia congregation, the court ruled 5 to 4 in July that lower courts could apply "neutral principles of law" to church property disputes without going into questions of doctrine.
In essence this means that state courts may decide church property disputes on the basis of state laws, the language of the deed to the church property itself and the provisions of the national denomination's constitution, without regard to the denomination's doctrine and traditions.
The 2.5-million-member United Presbyterian Church has operated on the doctrinal principle that the property of every local congregation is held in trust for the denomination as a whole, Under this principle, a local church that withdraws from the denomination cannot take its property,
While some local congregations have specifically stated this principle in their deed, many others have not. Neither is it stated in the national church's constitution.
The church's General Assembly Mission Council, which guides affairs of the church between annual General Assembly meetings, is to meet Sept. 16 to decide whether the court threat to church property is sufficient to warrant calling a special Assembly meeting.
Such a meeting would be asked to amend the constitution of the national church "to say what we've taken it to mean for a long time," said William P. Thompson, top executive officer of the denomination.
Thompson, a practicing attorney before assuming the church leadership post, said that while there are no threats of mass defections of UPCUSA churches, "there's always a certain uneasiness among some churches."
Like most mainline denominations, the United Presbyterian Church has experienced considerable liberal-conservative polarization along theological and political lines. Such differences have led to church splits in several denominations including the one in Georgia out of which the high court ruling evolved.
Presbyterian leaders also note that the most recent General Assembly adopted a measure requiring each local congregation to include women on its session (governing body). The ruling was seen as a possible source of friction among some conservative congregations.
Thompson immediate past president of the National Council of Churches, said the court decision also posed problems for other denominations with a hierarchical form of church government: "Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox -- all of them that don't have some kind of congregational form of government," he said.
The U.S. Catholic Conference had filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Presbyterian denomination in the Georgia case.
The question also is under study by Episcopal church leaders, who meet in triennial General Convention next month.
The court ruling may be particularly pertinent for the Episcopal Church, which has more than a score of cases in litigation arising out of the schism about women priests and changes in the Book of Common Prayer.
Thompson estimated that a special session of the Presbyterian General Assembly would cost about $200,000 for the two days required to enact legislation in the wake of the court ruling.
The church's constitution requires that an amendment be ratified by a majority of the denomination's regional presbyteries and approved by a subsequent General Assembly. The calling of a special session would make it possible to have the legal safeguard in place by next May's General Convention.