The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to review the $40 million dispute over assets claimed by From the Heart Ministries, and returned the case to a Prince George's County Circuit Court judge.
The high court's action leaves it up to the county court to determine how to divide the assets between the African Methodist Episcopal Zion organization and From the Heart Ministries, which broke off from Full Gospel AME in 1999. No date has been set for a hearing.
From the Heart Ministries had been ordered by Prince George's County Circuit Court to turn over $38 million to $40 million in property -- including two sanctuaries, a school and a Learjet -- to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
Then, the Maryland Court of Appeals ordered a new hearing for the Temple Hills church, saying the lower court was wrong to grant summary judgment in the case and that state law as well as internal church rules should be considered. AME Zion went to the Supreme Court, arguing that a new hearing would subject it to an "unconstitutional intrusion into the denomination's self-governance" in violation of the First Amendment.
The case began in 1999, when the Rev. John A. Cherry and most of the 24,000 members of From the Heart Ministries in Temple Hills, broke away from the AME Zion denomination in 1999 after Cherry said he heard the voice of God say, "Get out of Zion." Cherry appealed the ruling by Prince George's Circuit Court and prevailed in the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, but lost on appeal to the state's highest court.
An attorney for AME Zion said the church was disappointed that it will have to fight the assets dispute all over again.
"We filed a petition with the Supreme Court because we thought the case had merit," said Tom Starnes, lawyer for the AME Zion church, who thought the Supreme Court would hear the case because it is relevant to many denominations dealing with breakaway congregations and fights over assets.
James Ferguson, lead counsel for AME Zion, has argued that the AME Zion church's "Book of Discipline" should govern the dispute, and that if a church breaks away, property acquired in the name of the church must remain with the denomination. But lawyers representing From the Heart have argued that the members are entitled to the property because they purchased it with their money.
The Rev. John A. Cherry II, assistant pastor of From the Heart Church Ministries, said his congregation has grown to nearly 28,000 members, with churches in the Washington area, Richmond and Los Angeles.
"We are just trying to stay focused on what God has for us to do," Cherry said.