Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian Church

Citation364 S.W.3d 575
Decision Date28 February 2012
Docket NumberNo. WD 73064.,WD 73064.
PartiesHEARTLAND PRESBYTERY, A Missouri Nonprofit Corporation, et al., Appellants, v. GASHLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, A Missouri Benevolent Corporation, Respondent.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)

364 S.W.3d 575

HEARTLAND PRESBYTERY, A Missouri Nonprofit Corporation, et al., Appellants,
GASHLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, A Missouri Benevolent Corporation, Respondent.

No. WD 73064.

Missouri Court of Appeals,
Western District.

Jan. 10, 2012.
Application for Transfer to Supreme Court
Denied Feb. 28, 2012.

Application for Transfer
Denied May 29, 2012.

[364 S.W.3d 577]

Allan V. Hallquist and Kathryn C. Goldsmith–Lee, Kansas City, MO, for appellant.

Glen S. Masters, North Kansas City, MO, Michael K. Whitehead, Kansas City, MO, and Jonathan R. Whitehead, Lee's Summit, MO, for respondent.



Gashland Presbyterian Church, a local Presbyterian congregation, terminated its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (“PCUSA”), a national religious denomination, and with the PCUSA's Heartland Presbytery. Heartland initiated this action against Gashland, claiming that Gashland held title to its church property in trust for the denomination. The circuit court dismissed Heartland's first amended petition for failure to state a claim. Because Heartland's petition fails to allege facts which could establish a trust relationship under Missouri law, we affirm.

Factual Background

Gashland was incorporated on August 11, 1948, as the “Gashland Community

[364 S.W.3d 578]

Church,” and was originally affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. On October 11, 1948, the Presbytery of Kansas City of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America deeded property located at 8029 North Oak Trafficway in Kansas City to Gashland. The grantee is identified in the Corporation Warranty Deed as “Gashland Community Church, Gashland, Missouri.” The deed recites that the property was transferred to Gashland in exchange for “one dollar and other good and valuable considerations [sic].” Gashland constructed a church on the property.

In 1958, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (“UPCUSA”), which in turn merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983 to form the PCUSA.

According to Heartland's first amended petition, the PCUSA is an unincorporated association of “Reformed Christian believers.” Individual churches are governed by sessions, comprised of the church's pastors and elders. Multiple sessions are governed by a district governing body known as a presbytery, which is in turn governed by a regional body, the synod. Synods are governed by the General Assembly, the highest governing body within the PCUSA. While it was associated with the PCUSA, Gashland fell within the Heartland Presbytery.

The PCUSA's Book of Order is part of the denomination's Constitution. Section G–8.0201 of the Book of Order, which we refer to as the “Property–Trust Clause,” provides:

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Heartland alleges that a version of the Property–Trust Clause was first adopted by the UPCUSA in 1981, and was carried forward in PCUSA's Constitution following its formation in 1983.1

On September 30, 2007, Gashland submitted a request to Heartland for dismissal from the PCUSA with property, so that it could affiliate with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Having received no response, Gashland sent a letter to Heartland on January 14, 2008, stating that it had unilaterally disaffiliated from the presbytery and the PCUSA, and affiliated instead with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. On March 6, 2008, Heartland's Administrative Commission notified Gashland that it would hold a hearing on Gashland's request for dismissal with property on April 10, 2008. By letter dated April 7, 2008, Gashland notified the Commission that it would not appear at the April 10 hearing. The Administrative Commission nonetheless held the hearing, without

[364 S.W.3d 579]

Gashland's participation. After a series of attempts to engage Gashland in further proceedings, the Administrative Commission determined that reconciliation was not possible and initiated the present litigation, seeking to enforce the denomination's rights under the Property–Trust Clause.

Heartland filed its petition on November 23, 2009.2 After Gashland moved to dismiss the petition for failure to state a claim, Heartland was granted leave to file an amended petition. Following the filing of Heartland's first amended petition, Gashland again moved to dismiss. The circuit court granted Gashland's motion, and dismissed Heartland's amended petition with prejudice. This appeal follows.

Standard of Review

The standard of review for a trial court's grant of a motion to dismiss is de novo. When this Court reviews the dismissal of a petition for failure to state a claim, the facts contained in the petition are treated as true and they are construed liberally in favor of the plaintiffs. If the petition sets forth any set of facts that, if proven, would entitle the plaintiffs to relief, then the petition states a claim.
Adams v. One Park Place Investors, LLC, 315 S.W.3d 742, 753 (Mo.App. W.D.2010) (quoting Lynch v. Lynch, 260 S.W.3d 834, 836 (Mo. banc 2008)). “We will affirm the dismissal if it is supported by any ground, regardless of whether the trial court relied on that ground.” Smith v. Bowersox, 330 S.W.3d 103, 105–06 (Mo.App. S.D.2010) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).


Heartland asserts two Points Relied On. In the first, it contends that the trial court erred in dismissing its amended petition because Gashland's Articles of Agreement and amended By–Laws, in conjunction with the PCUSA's Book of Order, establish that Gashland held the disputed property in trust for the PCUSA. In its second Point, Heartland argues that it stated a claim for breach of contract against Gashland.

Although the present case involves a dispute between religious organizations over the ownership of property on which religious activities are conducted,

[t]here can be little doubt about the general authority of civil courts to resolve this question. The State has an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes, and in providing a civil forum where the ownership of church property can be determined conclusively. [¶] It is also clear, however, that the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes. Most importantly, the First Amendment prohibits civil courts from resolving church property disputes on the basis of religious doctrine and practice. As a corollary to this commandment, the Amendment requires that civil courts defer to the resolution of issues of religious doctrine or polity by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization. Subject to these limitations, however, the First Amendment does not dictate that a State must follow a particular method of resolving church property disputes. Indeed, a State may adopt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters,

[364 S.W.3d 580]

whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith.

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 602, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 61 L.Ed.2d 775 (1979) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

The judicial approach to church property disputes has evolved over time. In earlier English cases, courts sought to resolve such disputes by determining, for themselves, “what is the true standard of faith in the church organization, and which of the contending parties before the court holds to this standard.” Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 727, 20 L.Ed. 666 (1871). The United States Supreme Court rejected this approach in Watson, and instead adopted a “rule of deference” under which civil courts would defer to the decision of the highest adjudicatory authority within a hierarchical church structure:

In this class of cases we think the rule of action which should govern the civil courts, founded in a broad and sound view of the relations of church and state under our system of laws, ... is, that, 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.

Id.3 Missouri adhered to this “rule of deference” for much of the previous century. See, e.g., Hayes v. Manning, 263 Mo. 1, 172 S.W. 897, 904–06 (Mo. banc 1914).4

In a series of later cases, however, the United States Supreme Court held that another approach was constitutionally permissible: “there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without ‘establishing’ churches to which property is awarded.” Presbyterian Church in the U.S. v. Mary Eliz. Blue Hull Mem'l Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449, 89 S.Ct. 601, 21 L.Ed.2d 658 (1969). The Court later explained that

The primary advantages of the neutral-principles approach are that it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all

[364 S.W.3d 581]

forms of religious organization and polity. The method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges. It thereby promises to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of...

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    ......Instead, the majority in Jones v. Wolf expressly found that " ‘a State may adopt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes' " so long as it does not violate the First Amendment. 443 U.S. at 602, 99 S.Ct. 3020 ; see also Heartland Presbytery v. Gashland Presbyterian Church , 364 S.W.3d 575, 589–90 (Mo. App. 2012) ("[T]he First Amendment does not dictate that a State must follow a particular method of resolving church property disputes."). In approving the neutral-principles approach as an option to be used in resolving church property disputes, ......
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