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decided: April 3, 1985.


No. 36 W.D. Appeal Dkt. 1984, Appeal from the Order of the Commonwealth Court dated February 10, 1984, No. 1740 C.D. 1982, Reversing the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County, No. 81-024, 80 Pa. Commw. Ct. 211, Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ.

Author: Mcdermott

[ 507 Pa. Page 257]


This is a dispute over the ownership of church property. The issue presented is whether the members of a local church which has been affiliated with a national denomination can retain ownership of the assets and property of that local church after having terminated their membership in that denomination.

The principal appellant*fn1 is the Middlesex Presbyterian Church ("Middlesex"), which is a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation, incorporated in 1907. The primary appellee*fn2 is the Beaver-Butler Presbytery of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America representing the

[ 507 Pa. Page 258]

    interests of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). UPCUSA is a nation-wide religious denomination which was formed in 1958 by the merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, and the United Presbyterian Church in North America.

From its inception Middlesex was a participating church in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Upon an organizational merger in 1958, Middlesex became a member church under the banner of UPCUSA, and remained so until its disaffiliation in April, 1981. That separation was effected by a corporate charter amendment whereby the membership of Middlesex voted to disaffiliate from UPCUSA;*fn3 and it was that decision which precipitated the present controversy.

The original complaint in equity was filed by appellees on July 31, 1981, in the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County. Therein appellees sought delivery of all church property, an accounting of all church assets, and an injunction against the seceding members from in any way using or dissipating the assets of the church. Defendants, appellants herein, filed preliminary objections to that complaint.

Thereafter, on September 14, 1981, appellees filed a second complaint in equity, seeking to secure the right of those members who did not vote to secede to utilize the church property for worship while the original litigation was proceeding. On that date a special injunction was issued ex parte and appellants were enjoined from using the property in any manner inconsistent with the dictates of the central body, i.e., the Beaver-Butler Presbytery. On September 18, 1981, a hearing was held on this injunction. On September 21, 1981, the injunction was dissolved, without prejudice to the resolution of the parties' rights in the original action.

On November 10, 1981, appellants, defendants below, filed their answer to the original complaint and new matter,

[ 507 Pa. Page 259]

    responding that they never agreed to surrender title to their property to the national organization. Following the completion of discovery, both sides moved for summary judgment. The Honorable John C. Dillon, P.J., rendered summary judgment in favor of Middlesex, finding no original agreement of trust placing the local church property in the control or ownership of the national church. His findings were affirmed by a court en banc, and a final decree was entered, which, upon appeal to the Commonwealth Court, was reversed. 80 Pa. Commw.Ct. 211, 471 A.2d 1271. We allowed appeal, and now reverse the Commonwealth Court.


A dispute among members of a religious denomination over the ownership of church property is not without precedent. Over a hundred years ago the Supreme Court of the United States was faced with a dispute in a southern church over the issue of slavery. In Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 20 L.Ed. 666 (13 Wall. 1871), members of the Walnut Street Church of Louisville, Kentucky, fell into conflict when the national body, the Presbyterian Church of the United States, required their members to disavow slavery as a moral evil. Dissidents in the Walnut Street Church refused compliance and seized the local church. The national body of the Presbyterian Church brought suit to regain possession of the church property. The Supreme Court in an oft-cited case laid down a rubric for civil courts that has been honored, enforced, and enlarged ever since. The Watson Court defined what has come to be honored as the "deference rule". They said in 1871:

     whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them in their application to the case before them. (Emphasis supplied.)

Id., 80 U.S. at 727. While the Watson Court did not fasten their rule to the First Amendment, it was so profound a

[ 507 Pa. Page 260]

    wisdom that subsequent courts found it a matrix for their First Amendment considerations.

The "deference rule", as the Watson ruling is familiarly known, was the beginning of an evolution from a previous doctrine known as the "departure from doctrine" rule, which had allowed courts to determine property rights if they found that a church body had departed from or changed their theological doctrines as to become something different from the intentions of their founders or their members.

The wisdom of the Watson Court is as clear now as it ever was: the right to practice one's belief and worship as one chooses is so deep a root of our constitutional culture that a court, even one with the best intentions, can be no more than a clumsy intruder into the most delicate and sensitive areas of human life. When Caesar enters the Temple to decide what the Temple believes, he can leave behind only his own views. The view of a court as to who are heretics among warring sects is worth nothing, and must count as nothing if our cherished diversity of religious views is to prevail.

The "deference rule" of Watson became a postulate of the First Amendment in Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952). In Kedroff, the New York legislature intervened by legislative act to settle the ownership of the property of the Russian Orthodox Church in America. The New York legislature decided that since the Czar of Russia was no more, the orthodoxy of the Orthodox Church of Russia had fallen among infidels, depriving the Patriarch of Moscow of the authority to appoint hierarchs of the church in New York.

The Supreme Court, loathe to interfere even upon so inviting a subject, maintained their rule that a doctrinal dispute belonged to the church authorities, even those in Moscow, and struck down the legislative Act of the New York Assembly as an unconstitutional intrusion into religious discipline. Kedroff locked Watson to the ...

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