The United States Supreme Court has rejected a Presbyterian Church (USA) regional body’s effort to claim ownership of the property of a dismissed conservative congregation in Minnesota.
In an order released Monday, the high court declined to hear an appeal in the case of Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area v. Eden Prairie Presbyterian, allowing a lower court ruling in favor of the dismissed church to stand.
In a statement emailed to The Christian Post, Executive Presbyter the Rev. Jeff Japinga of the Twin Cities Area Presbytery stated that he was “deeply disappointed by the result,” arguing that the lower court rulings go against “the church’s historic and legal right to organize and govern itself free from governmental interference.”
“In violation of the First Amendment, the Minnesota courts substituted their own judgment and secular civil law for the mutual covenants of the Book of Order that binds all Presbyterians together,” stated Japinga.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear our case is especially disappointing because the formal trust clause—which merely codified the Presbyterian church’s historical understanding of how we hold property in trust—was first put into the Book of Order at the invitation of the Supreme Court in 1979 to prevent disputes such as this one.”
The Christian Post reached out to Prairie Community Church, which is the current name of Eden Prairie Presbyterian. However, they were unable to return comment by press time.
In 2012, Prairie Community Church decided to seek dismissal from the Twin Cities Presbytery and in 2014 it joined the theologically conservative Presbyterian denomination ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
According to the PC(USA), Prairie Community’s property was held in trust with the denomination and in order to leave, the congregation had to pay PC(USA) to leave with their church property.
By September 2014, the presbytery and the church had filed legal actions against each other over the dispute and whether the denomination rightly held a trust in the property.
A district court judge ruled in favor of the congregation, using the neutral principles standard, which determines ownership of property based on what documents said rather than personal beliefs or opinions.
In April 2017, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the district court decision and in July 2017, the state supreme court refused to hear an appeal.
“After careful review of the record, the district court concluded that the [PCUSA] Book of Order does not prohibit a congregation from retaining the right to amend articles of incorporation, and the undisputed facts support this conclusion,” said the state court of appeals.
“Moreover, G-4.203 of the Book of Order includes no reference restricting or prohibiting congregations’ authority to amend or revoke the trust.”
Despite the litigation defeat, Japinga of the Presbytery explained in his statement that he did believe this decision will have a broader impact on the regional body.
“Although the trust clause by itself may not be legally enforceable in Minnesota’s civil justice system, we have faith that the congregations of the Presbytery will continue to honor the covenantal ties that unite us in our ministry of witness to the love and grace and justice of God in the world,” stated Japinga.