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Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church In v. Stanley Meena and Judith Gotwald and Evangelical Lutheran Church of

April 18, 2011

SOUTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA SYNOD OF THE EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA
v.
STANLEY MEENA AND JUDITH GOTWALD AND EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH OF THE REDEEMER A/K/A REDEEMER LUTHERAN CHURCH, APPELLANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dan Pellegrini, Judge

Argued: February 9, 2011

BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, Judge HONORABLE RENEE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge

OPINION BY JUDGE PELLEGRINI

Stanley Meena, Judith Gotwald,*fn1 and The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (collectively, Redeemer) appeal from orders of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County (trial court) granting a motion for summary judgment filed by Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (Synod) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), denying Redeemer's cross-motion for summary judgment and dismissing Redeemer's counterclaim against Synod.

Redeemer was incorporated in 1891 as a Pennsylvania non-profit religious corporation with its own constitution and bylaws. It owns property at the corner of Midvale Avenue and Conrad Street in the East Falls section of Philadelphia consisting of a church building and annex. The ELCA is a national church which is divided into 65 different synods in nine geographic regions of the United States. Each synod coordinates the work of the ELCA's congregations within its region and bears the responsibility of carrying out the Lutheran church's mission. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, incorporated in Pennsylvania as a religious organization under its own articles of incorporation and constitution, is corporately interdependent with the ELCA, forming a hierarchical church structure. According to Redeemer's constitution, it is a member of this hierarchical structure and is subject to the discipline of both Synod and the ELCA. Bishop Claire Burkat (Bishop Burkat) serves as both the chief ecumenical officer and President of Synod with the responsibility for ministry of Synod and its congregations, including Redeemer. Synod's constitution provides for oversight of its congregations, including their on- going viability, as Section 13.24 states:

If any congregation of this synod is disbanded, or if the members of a congregation agree that it is no longer possible for it to function as such, or if it is the opinion of the Synod Council that the membership of a congregation has become so scattered or so diminished in numbers as to make it impractical for such congregation to fulfill the purposes for which it was organized or that it is necessary for this synod to protect the congregation's property from waste and deterioration, the Synod Council, itself or through trustees appointed by it, may take charge and control of the property of the congregation to hold, manage, and convey the same on behalf of this synod. The congregation shall have the right to appeal the decision to the Synod Assembly.

In 2007, Synod Council assessed the fragile status of Redeemer, including its diminished attendance records, income and expense figures, and approved a resolution authorizing Bishop Burkat to take Redeemer under involuntary synodical administration in accordance with Section 13.24 of the Synod Constitution. On October 11, 2007, Bishop Burkat wrote to Redeemer's congregation announcing Synod's action placing Redeemer under involuntary synodical administration and requesting an immediate meeting with the congregation. Bishop Burkat met with Redeemer council members and four trustees on November 7, 2007, after which Redeemer delivered to Synod a list of church materials and documents.

On February 12, 2008, Bishop Burkat wrote to Redeemer's church council, notifying it that Redeemer would be closed and that all business must immediately cease. Council members were told that they no longer had authority to conduct church business on behalf of the congregation, and they must refrain from holding themselves out as church council. In addition, Bishop Burkat instructed council members to turn over the keys to the church as well as all bank records, administrative and financial documents and they should cooperate with Synod to wind down church affairs. That same day, Bishop Burkat also wrote to Redeemer's congregation stating that involuntary synodical administration was in place because the fragile economic situation and low membership made it unlikely that Redeemer's congregation could continue to carry out its stated mission and fulfill its purpose. Bishop Burkat's letter also stated that Redeemer's church council no longer had any authority within the congregation and that the trustees appointed by Synod Council would take charge of Redeemer's property.

Upon arrival at Redeemer's property on February 24, 2008, for a meeting with Redeemer's congregation, Bishop Burkat and the trustees found the church doors were locked. They were informed they would not be welcomed into the church, and if they did not leave Redeemer's property, the police would be contacted. Redeemer asserted that Synod had no right to take charge and control of its property. In June 2008, Redeemer's congregation held a meeting with approximately 12 members in attendance, at which time the congregation members voted unanimously to appeal Synod Council's decision to impose involuntary synodical administration.*fn2

Section 7.01 of the Synod Constitution states, "[t]his Synod shall have Synod Assembly, which shall be its highest legislative authority. The powers of the Synod Assembly are limited only by the provisions in the Articles of Incorporation, this constitution and bylaws, the assembly's own resolutions, and the constitution and bylaws of the [ELCA]." (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 105a). Synod held its annual meeting on May 8 and 9, 2009, during which Synod Assembly approved by majority vote the procedure to hear Redeemer's appeal. After presentation of the matter by members of Redeemer and the trustees, a majority of the Synod Assembly voted to affirm the decision of Synod Council to invoke Section 13.24, take charge and control of the property of Redeemer, and to hold, manage, and convey the same on behalf of Synod.

On June 9, 2008, Synod filed a complaint for declaratory relief against Redeemer seeking an order declaring that synodical administration was in effect, that Synod was the trustee of Redeemer, and directing Redeemer to deliver all of its keys, books, records, and financial assets to Synod. Synod alleged that Meena, Gotwald and Redeemer refused to comply with the imposition of synodical administration and conspired to take over Redeemer's congregation and its assets in violation of ecclesiastic laws, Redeemer's own constitution and the governing documents of the ELCA. According to Synod, the decision to impose synodical administration on Redeemer was a matter of internal church governance made pursuant to the church's constitution by Synod Council, the appropriate ecclesiastical body, and it was appealed to Synod Assembly, the highest judicatory body in Synod. Synod argued that it was not the function of a civil court to make such internal ecclesiastical decisions and that decisions of a church hierarchy were binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to the appeals the church itself provided. After the pleadings were closed, both parties filed motions for summary judgment and the trial court heard oral argument.

On September 25, 2009, the trial court issued an order granting Synod's motion for summary judgment and ordering Redeemer, inter alia, to deliver to Synod all of the keys to its buildings as well as all of its books, records and financial assets.*fn3

In its opinion issued pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b), the trial court noted that it considered the "neutral principles of law" approach in this matter, which states that "in cases where the resolution of a property dispute involves no inquiry into ecclesiastical questions, courts of this Commonwealth are to apply the same principles of law as would be applied to non-religious associations." Presbytery of Beaver-Butler v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, 507 Pa. 255, 266, 489 A.2d 1317, 1323 (1985), cert. denied 474 U.S. 887 (1985). However, the trial court noted that this case involved a core question of church discipline and internal governance. Synod Council decided to impose involuntary synodical administration and shut down Redeemer because its congregation had become so diminished in numbers or so scattered "as to make it impractical for such congregation to fulfill the purposes for which it was organized." Redeemer appealed this decision to the Synod Assembly, the highest judicatory body of Synod, which affirmed the decision. The trial court determined that the neutral principles of law approach did not apply, stating:

A decision that a congregation can no longer fulfill the purposes for which it was organized is a doctrinal one that does not involve a "neutral principles" of law approach. For this Court to analyze whether Synod's action was improper would require inquiry into the criteria Synod used when it decided to close the congregation.

(Trial court decision at 7). The trial court stated that whenever questions of discipline, faith, or ecclesiastical law, rule or custom have been decided by the highest church judicatory, legal tribunals must accept these decisions as final and binding in their application to the case before them. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 721 (1976). Because the Synod Assembly, the highest judicatory body of Synod, heard Redeemer's appeal and affirmed the decision to impose synodical administration, the trial court deferred to the church's resolution of the matter. This appeal followed.*fn4

On appeal, Redeemer first argues that the trial court erred in holding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the case. According to Redeemer, Synod's decision regarding who owns Redeemer's corporate property is not ecclesiastical in nature or a matter of internal church governance and, therefore, not binding on a civil court. Redeemer asserts that the property dispute involves questions of corporate and property law that can be determined without delving into doctrinal questions. Therefore, Redeemer maintains that the trial court should have accepted jurisdiction of the case and decided the issue under the neutral principles of law approach, and that it erred in refusing to do so. We disagree.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has explained that when the resolution of a property dispute does not involve an inquiry into ecclesiastical questions,*fn5 courts of this Commonwealth are to apply the "neutral principles of law approach," meaning they must use the same principles of law as would be applied to non-religious associations. Presbytery of Beaver-Butler v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, 507 Pa. 255, 489 A.2d 1317 (1985). "[T]his approach 'relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law' by requiring courts to resolve property disputes according to the terms of a governing statute, the property deed, and any other document that expresses the parties' intentions regarding the ownership of ...


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