Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County in the case of The Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, an unincorporated Association, et al. v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, an unincorporated ecclesiastical congregation, et al., Equity No. 81-024, Book 23, Page 241.
Gregory M. Harvey, with him George W. McKeag and Elizabeth L. Hoop, of counsel, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, and Lee C. McCandless, McCandless, Krizner & Price, for appellants.
Kenneth C. Kettering, with him Roger C. Weigand, Reed, Smith, Shaw & McClay, and James A. Taylor, Murrin, Murrin & Taylor, for appellees.
Tom P. Monteverde, with him Jean C. Hemphill, Monteverde, Hemphill, Maschmeyer & Obert, for Amici Curiae, The Tenth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, The Presbyterian Church of Coatesville, The Faggs' Manor Presbyterian Church and J. R. Miller Memorial Presbyterian Church.
Judges Rogers, Craig and Doyle, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Rogers. Judge MacPhail did not participate in this decision.
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The question of this appeal is that of whether a majority of the members of the congregation of a local church, having decided to leave the denomination
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with which the local church has been in union, may retain possession and control of the property appertaining to the local church; or whether in such event possession and control of the property passes to the competent authorities of the denomination.
The question is not, unhappily, a stranger to courts. Because ecclesiastical controversies arouse strong feelings in the participants and because they come trailing the looming presence of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, courts approach them with diffidence and decide them to the accompaniment of dilatations. It is nevertheless as surely the duty of courts to protect the property rights of religious organizations as of other organizations which come before them.
The local church in this case was Middlesex United Presbyterian Church, an unincorporated congregation, located in Butler County. Middlesex United Presbyterian Church was affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America from 1799 until 1958 when the latter merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, with which last denomination Middlesex United remained in all respects in union until the events of this case.
The real property used by the Middlesex United Presbyterian Church was in title to, and the personal property was in the charge of, a nonprofit corporation named Middlesex Presbyterian Church, the charter of which, obtained in 1907, provided that the members of the corporation should be members of the congregation of Middlesex United Presbyterian Church, that the trustees of the corporation should be lay members of that congregation and that the purpose of the corporation should be to worship "according
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to the faith, doctrine, creed, discipline and usages of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America," which denomination we learn was organized along the same lines as its successor by merger, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
On April 6, 1981, at a special meeting of the congregation, called by the pastor, 156 of the 271 members of the Middlesex United Presbyterian Church voted on a proposed resolution that Middlesex United Presbyterian Church should be disaffiliated from the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The vote was 125 to 31 in favor of the resolution. The seceding members then took and retained control of the church's property consisting of a church edifice, a manse, a cemetery, about $14,000 in funds, and other personal property. They formed a new unincorporated local church congregation which they named Middlesex Presbyterian Church, thus dropping the word United. They also caused the charter of the nonprofit corporation, named Middlesex Presbyterian Church, which held title to the church property, to be amended so as to substitute for the statement of adherence to the discipline and usages of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, a clause reading that "this corporation shall always be separate and distinct from, and in no way subject to the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America or any affiliate thereof including the Presbytery or any other entity of said denomination." We learn that the moderator and the seceding members of Middlesex United Presbyterian Church have joined the Presbyterian Church in America, a denomination unrelated to the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and one which we are told expressly
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disclaims any right to the property of local churches.
It is appropriate at this point to digress briefly to a description of the organization of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, with which Middlesex United Presbyterian Church was affiliated. Its Constitution consists of two books, The Book of Confessions and The Book of Order. One of the three parts of The Book of Order is the Form of Government which describes the "system of union and the form of government and discipline." The Form of Government provides that congregations are governed by four judicatories, i.e., governing bodies, called the Sessions of the local, or as Presbyterians say particular churches; Presbyteries; Synods; and a General Assembly.
Each particular church is immediately governed by its session consisting of the pastor, also called moderator, and ruling elders in active service. The session "is charged with maintaining the spiritual government of the congregation . . . [and] shall have authority over all of the affairs and activities of the particular church, except such matters as may, by this Form of Government, be specifically accorded to the pastor, to the congregation, or to a higher adjudicatory." The session is given "exclusive authority over the uses to which the church buildings and properties may be put." The Form of Government also provides that any difference between a session and a church congregation shall be resolved in favor of "the position of the session, as the body having superior responsibility for the welfare and program of the church, . . . unless reversed or modified by a higher judicatory."
A presbytery is composed of ministers and elders representing the particular churches within a geographical
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district. Its jurisdiction includes the power to receive and decide appeals from sessions and to "take effectual care that they observe the Constitution of the Church." The presbytery has the power to appoint a commission with the full power of a session composed of ministers and ruling elders to take the place of an existing session "[w]henever, after a thorough investigation, and after full opportunity to be heard has been accorded to the session in question, the presbytery of jurisdiction shall determine that the session of a particular church is unable or unwilling to manage wisely the affairs of its church."
A synod is the judicatory next superior to the presbytery and is composed of ministers and ruling elders of not fewer than three presbyteries. Its jurisdiction includes deciding appeals from decisions of presbyteries and its decisions are final on all questions other than those affecting doctrine or the interpretation of the Constitution.
The General Assembly is the highest judicatory and it consists of ministers and elders from each presbytery. It "shall receive all appeals, complaints, and references that affect the doctrine or the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church" and it has "the power of deciding . . . all controversies respecting doctrine and the interpretation of the Constitution of the Church."
Turning again to the history of this litigation, we record that the Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the judicatory having immediate authority over Middlesex United Presbyterian Church, responded to the secession of the moderator and some of the members by appointing an Administrative Commission to replace the local session with full powers of a session. Under the Form of Government the powers of a session include exclusive power over
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the use to which church buildings and properties may be put.
The seceding members of Middlesex United Presbyterian Church refused the demand of the Administrative Commission to deliver up the property, and they changed the locks on the church buildings. The Administrative Commission has held church services in homes for the members of Middlesex United Presbyterian Church who did not withdraw; and those members have also attended services in other churches in union with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
The Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the Administrative Commission appointed by the Presbytery,*fn1 then commenced this action in equity against the Middlesex Presbyterian Church, the new local church founded by the seceding members of the Middlesex United Presbyterian ...