393 U.S. 440 (1969), 71, Presbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church

Docket NºNo. 71
Citation393 U.S. 440, 89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658
Party NamePresbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church
Case DateJanuary 27, 1969
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 440

393 U.S. 440 (1969)

89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658

Presbyterian Church in United States

v.

Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church

No. 71

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 27, 1969

Argued December 9-10, 1968

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF GEORGIA

Syllabus

Respondents, two local churches, voted to withdraw from petitioner general church with which they had had a doctrinal dispute and to reconstitute themselves as an autonomous religious organization. A church tribunal proceeded to take over respondents' property on behalf of the general church. Respondents, without appealing to higher church tribunals, sued in the Georgia state court to enjoin the general church from trespassing on the disputed property. The general church moved to dismiss, and cross-claimed for injunctive relief on the ground that civil courts had no power to determine whether the general church had departed from its tenets of faith and practice. The motion to dismiss was denied, and the case was submitted to the jury on the theory that Georgia law implies a trust of local church property for the benefit of the general church on condition that the general church adhere to doctrinal tenets existing at the time of affiliation by the local churches. The jury, having been instructed to determine whether the general church's actions were a substantial abandonment of its original doctrines, returned a verdict for respondents; the trial judge issued an injunction against the general church; and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed.

Held: Civil courts cannot, consistently with First Amendment principles, determine ecclesiastical questions in resolving property disputes; and since the "departure from doctrine" element of Georgia's implied trust theory requires civil courts to weigh the significance and meaning of religious doctrines, it can play no role in judicial proceedings. Pp. 445-452.

224 Ga. 61, 159 S.E.2d 690, reversed and remanded.

Page 441

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a church property dispute which arose when two local churches withdrew from a hierarchical general church organization. Under Georgia law, the right to the property previously used by the local churches was made to turn on a civil court jury decision as to whether the general church abandoned or departed from the tenets of faith and practice it held at the time the local churches affiliated with it. The question presented is whether the restraints of the First Amendment, as applied to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, permit a civil court to award church property on the basis of the interpretation and significance the civil court assigns to aspects of church doctrine.

Petitioner, Presbyterian Church in the United States, is an association of local Presbyterian churches governed

Page 442

by a hierarchical structure of tribunals which consists of, in ascending order, (1) the Church Session, composed of the elders of the local church; (2) the Presbytery, composed of several churches in a geographical area; (3) the Synod, generally composed of all Presbyteries within a State; and (4) the General Assembly, the highest governing body.

A dispute arose between petitioner, the general church, and two local churches in Savannah, Georgia -- the respondents, Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church and Eastern Heights Presbyterian Church -- over control of the properties used until then by the local churches. In 1966, the membership of the local churches, in the belief that certain actions and pronouncements of the general church were violations of that organization's constitution and departures from the doctrine and practice in force at the time of affiliation,1 voted to withdraw from the general church and to reconstitute the local churches as an autonomous Presbyterian organization. The ministers of the two [89 S.Ct. 603] churches renounced the general church's

Page 443

jurisdiction and authority over them, as did all but two of the ruling elders. In response, the general church, through the Presbytery of Savannah, established an Administrative Commission to seek a conciliation. The dissident local churchmen remained steadfast; consequently, the Commission acknowledged the withdrawal of the local leadership and proceeded to take over the local churches' property on behalf of the general church until new local leadership could be appointed.

The local churchmen made no effort to appeal the Commission's action to higher church tribunals -- the Synod of Georgia or the General Assembly. Instead, the churches filed separate suits in the Superior Court of Chatham County to enjoin the general church from trespassing on the disputed property, title to which was in the local churches. The cases were consolidated for trial. The general church moved to dismiss the actions and cross-claimed for injunctive relief in its own behalf on the ground that civil courts were without power to determine whether the general church had departed from its tenets of faith and practice. The motion to dismiss was denied, and the case was submitted to the jury on the theory that Georgia law implies a trust of local church property for the benefit of the general church on the sole condition that the general church adhere to its tenets of faith and practice existing at the time of affiliation by the local churches.2 Thus, the jury was instructed to determine whether the actions of the general church

amount to a fundamental or substantial abandonment of the original tenets and doctrines of the [general

Page 444

church], so that the new tenets and doctrines are utterly variant from the purposes for which the [general church] was founded.

The jury returned a verdict for the local churches, and the trial judge thereupon declared that the implied trust had terminated, and enjoined the general church from interfering with the use of the property in question. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed, 224 Ga. 61, 159 S.E.2d 690 (1968). We granted certiorari to consider the First Amendment questions raised.3 392 U.S. 903 [89 S.Ct. 604] (1968). We reverse.

Page 445

It is, of course, true that the State has a legitimate interest in resolving property disputes, and that a civil court is a proper forum for that resolution. Special problems arise, however, when these disputes implicate controversies over church doctrine and practice. The approach of this Court in such cases was originally developed in Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall. 679 (1872), a pre-Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins diversity decision decided before the application of the First Amendment to the States, but nonetheless informed by First Amendment considerations.4 There, as here, civil courts were asked to resolve a property dispute between a national Presbyterian organization and local churches of that organization. There, as here, the disputes arose out of a controversy over church doctrine. There, as here, the Court was asked to decree the termination of an implied trust because of departures from doctrine by the national organization. The Watson Court refused, pointing out that it was wholly inconsistent with the American concept of the relationship

Page 446

between church and state to permit civil courts to determine ecclesiastical questions. In language which has a clear constitutional ring, the Court said:

In this country, the full and free right to entertain any religious belief, to practice any religious principle, and to teach any religious doctrine which does not violate the laws of morality and property, and which does not infringe personal rights, is conceded to all. The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. . . . All who unite themselves to such a body [the general church] do so with an implied consent to [its] government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent, and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if anyone aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them [sic] reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to [89 S.Ct. 605] such appeals as the organism itself provides for.

13 Wall. at 728-729.5

Page 447

The logic of this language leaves the civil courts no role in determining ecclesiastical questions in the process of resolving property disputes.

Later cases, however, also decided on nonconstitutional grounds, recognized that there might be some circumstances in which marginal civil court review of ecclesiastical determinations would be appropriate.6 The scope of this review was delineated in Gonzalez v. Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1 (1929), There, Gonzalez claimed the right to be appointed to a chaplaincy in the Roman Catholic Church under a will which provided that a member of his family receive that appointment. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila, Philippine Islands, refused to appoint Gonzalez on the ground that he did not satisfy the qualifications established by Canon Law for that office. Gonzalez brought suit in the Court of First Instance of Manila for a judgment directing the Archbishop, among other things, to appoint him chaplain. The trial court entered such an order, but the Supreme Court of the Philippine Islands reversed, and "absolved the Archbishop from the complaint." This Court affirmed. Mr. Justice Brandeis, speaking for the Court, defined the civil court role in the following words:

In the absence of fraud, collusion, or arbitrariness, the decisions of the proper church tribunals on matters purely ecclesiastical, although affecting civil rights, are accepted in litigation before the secular courts as conclusive, because the parties in...

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691 practice notes
  • Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty
    • United States
    • Federal Register October 26, 2017
    • October 26, 2017
    ...Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 724-25 (1976); Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 451 (1969); Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 120-21 (1952). It may not discriminate agai......
  • 335 B.R. 842 (Bkrtcy.D.Or. 2005), 04-37154, In re Roman Catholic Archbishop of Portland in Oregon
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Ninth Circuit
    • December 30, 2005
    ...civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical questions. Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 The TCC argues that this limitation on the power of courts to decide matters involving church government a......
  • 844 S.E.2d 591 (N.C.App. 2020), COA18-873, Lippard v. Holleman
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeals of North Carolina
    • May 19, 2020
    ...(1970) (per curiam); Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 606, 21 L.Ed.2d 658, 665 (1969)). The Supreme Court concluded that [w]hen a party brings a proper complaint, where civil, co......
  • The Episcopal Church v. Salazar, 040518 TXCA2, 02-15-00220-CV
    • United States
    • Texas Court of Appeals of Texas
    • April 5, 2018
    ...or trusts were created, and if so, for whom. (c) Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 89 S.Ct. 601 (1969). Presbyterian Church, which involved a church property dispute in which two local churches withdrew from ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
653 cases
  • 335 B.R. 842 (Bkrtcy.D.Or. 2005), 04-37154, In re Roman Catholic Archbishop of Portland in Oregon
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Ninth Circuit
    • December 30, 2005
    ...civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical questions. Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 The TCC argues that this limitation on the power of courts to decide matters involving church government a......
  • 844 S.E.2d 591 (N.C.App. 2020), COA18-873, Lippard v. Holleman
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeals of North Carolina
    • May 19, 2020
    ...(1970) (per curiam); Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 606, 21 L.Ed.2d 658, 665 (1969)). The Supreme Court concluded that [w]hen a party brings a proper complaint, where civil, co......
  • The Episcopal Church v. Salazar, 040518 TXCA2, 02-15-00220-CV
    • United States
    • Texas Court of Appeals of Texas
    • April 5, 2018
    ...or trusts were created, and if so, for whom. (c) Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 89 S.Ct. 601 (1969). Presbyterian Church, which involved a church property dispute in which two local churches withdrew from ......
  • 200 B.R. 884 (Bkrtcy.D.Idaho 1996), 95-01294, In re Hodge
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Bankruptcy Courts Ninth Circuit
    • September 26, 1996
    ...the Establishment Clause, the Defendant cites, among others, Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 (1969), and Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 61 L.Ed.2d 775 (1979). These decisions, along with th......
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32 books & journal articles
  • On the legal standard for evaluating free exercise claims in the context of sex offender civil commitment.
    • United States
    • Ave Maria Law Review Vol. 11 Nbr. 2, March 2013
    • March 22, 2013
    ...a task that is outside the realm of judicial competence. See Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 450 (1969); see also Emp't Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. at 886-87 ("It is no more appropriate for judges to determine the 'centrality' of rel......
  • Religion and the First Amendment: some causes of the recent confusion.
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    • March 1, 2001
    ...(per curiam) (stating the courts should avoid doctrinal disputes); Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 451 (1969) (stating that civil courts are forbidden to interpret and weigh church doctrine); Kreshik v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian......
  • Debt Among the Faithful: Churches, Lenders & Troubled Loans in Kansas, 0619 KSBJ, 88 J. Kan. Bar Assn 6, 34 (2019)
    • United States
    • Kansas Bar Journal Nbr. 2019, January 2019
    • January 1, 2019
    ...P.2d 849 (1973). [64] Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 606, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 [65] Gospel Tabernacle Body of Christ Church v. Peace Publishers & Co., 211 Kan. 420, 423, 506 P.2d......
  • Hosanna-Tabor and the ministerial exception.
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 35 Nbr. 3, June 2012
    • June 22, 2012
    ...note 42. (76.) Smith, 494 U.S. at 877 (citing Presbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969); Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94 (1952); Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976)). (77.) Se......
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2 provisions
  • Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty
    • United States
    • Federal Register October 26, 2017
    • October 26, 2017
    ...Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 724-25 (1976); Presbyterian Church v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 451 (1969); Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral of the Russian Orthodox Church, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 120-21 (1952). It may not discriminate agai......
  • Health and Human Services Department, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services,
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    • Federal Register October 02, 2002
    • August 4, 2002
    ...cf. Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 245 (1982), Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 445-452 (1969); Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, 344 U.S. 94, 95-119 (1952); Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese1 v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696......