Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. v. OPC, Inc.

Decision Date26 May 2011
Docket NumberNo. 82A02–1003–MF–339.,82A02–1003–MF–339.
PartiesThe PRESBYTERY OF OHIO VALLEY, INC. d/b/a the Presbytery of Ohio Valley d/b/a Ohio Valley Presbystery, and the Synod of Lincoln Trails of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Inc. d/b/a the Synod of Lincoln Trails, Inc., Appellants–Plaintiffs,v.OPC, INC. f/k/a Olivet Presbyterian Church, Inc. d/b/a Olivet Presbyterian Church d/b/a Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church d/b/a Olivet Presbyterian Church of Evansville, Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Evansville, Inc. d/b/a Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church d/b/a Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America, Appellees–Defendants.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Judy L. Woods, Bose McKinney & Evans LLP, Indianapolis, IN, Ross E. Rudolph, Rudolph Fine Porter & Johnson LLP, Evansville, IN, Attorneys for Appellants.Brian P. Williams, Kahn, Dees, Donovan & Kahn, LLP, Evansville, IN, Attorney for Appellees.

OPINION

BAKER, Chief Judge.

In this appeal, a local congregation that was a part of the national Presbyterian Church petitioned to leave the national Church. When the governing Church body indicated that it might not permit the local congregation to retain the property on which it was situated, the local congregation truncated the process and refused to acknowledge the Church's right to the property. The dispute made its way into the judicial system, and we now conclude that because (1) the local congregation was part of the national Church and accepted the benefits of being part of a national organization, (2) the local congregation acknowledged in its bylaws that it was bound by the national Church Constitution and could not amend its bylaws to conflict with that document, and (3) the Church Constitution contains a clause providing that all property titled to local congregations is held in trust for the use and benefit of the national Church, judgment must be entered in favor of the governing judicatory bodies of the national Church—the Appellants.

Appellants-plaintiffs Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. d/b/a Presbytery of Ohio Valley d/b/a Ohio Valley Presbytery (Presbytery), and Synod of Lincoln Trails of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Inc. d/b/a Synod of Lincoln Trails, Inc. (Synod) (collectively, “the Appellants) appeal the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of appellees-defendants OPC, Inc. f/k/a Olivet Presbyterian Church, Inc. d/b/a Olivet Presbyterian Church d/b/a Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church d/b/a Olivet Presbyterian Church of Evansville, Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Evansville, Inc. d/b/a Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church (collectively, Olivet), and Evangelical Presbyterian Church d/b/a Evangelical Presbyterian Church of America (EPC) (collectively, the Appellees).

The Appellants argue that the trial court erred by applying the neutral principles of law approach rather than the polity approach to this property dispute. But even if the neutral principle approach is found to apply herein, the Appellants contend that they should prevail. We conclude that when the neutral principles of law approach is applied correctly, the Appellants prevail. Consequently, we reverse and remand with instructions to enter summary judgment in the Appellants' favor, together with a declaratory judgment that Olivet has no right, title, or interest in the Oak Hill Property, and a constructive trust on that property in favor of the Presbytery.

FACTS 1
Structure and History of the Presbyterian Church

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America was formed in 1788, and when divisions around slavery and related religious doctrines could not be reconciled, the Church split in 1865. Churches south of the Mason–Dixon Line became known as the Presbyterian Church in the United States (“PCUS”), and congregations north of the Mason–Dixon line adopted the name “The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America” (“UPCUSA”). The split continued until June 10, 1983, when these two branches of the Church reunited, and thereafter the denomination was known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (“PC(USA)).

Doctrinal disputes among American Presbyterians in the 18th and 19th centuries led to the formation of several splinter groups, including the EPC, which is an independent denomination. The PC(USA) and EPC have different standards for ordination and holding church property, as well as doctrinal differences.

The PC(USA) is governed by its Constitution, which is comprised of the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. The Book of Order contains the Form of Government, Directory for Worship, and Rules of Discipline.

There are four levels of governance in the PC(USA): the General Assembly (highest), the synod (multistate regional), the presbytery (primary regional), and the session (local church). The Constitution provides that each lower governing body is answerable to the successive higher governing body. The presbytery is the primary governing body within the PC(USA), has plenary power, and is responsible for the mission and governance of the PC(USA) within its geographic area.

Among other things, the Constitution provides that all property held by individual congregations is held in trust for the PC(USA):

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the [PC(USA) ], 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 [PC(USA) ].

Stip. Ex. 2. This clause (the “Property Trust Clause”) has been included in the Constitution since the formation of the PC(USA) in 1983.

The Parties to the Appeal

The Presbytery, which was incorporated in 1973, is responsible for the mission and governance of the PC(USA) in the southwestern third of Indiana, including all of Vanderburgh County. Consequently, Olivet is within the bounds of the Presbytery. The Synod, also incorporated in 1973, is the intermediate governing body responsible for all of the presbyteries in Indiana and Illinois.

Olivet was founded near the turn of the twentieth century and, beginning in at least 1906, was a member congregation of the UPCUSA. In 1968, the Olivet congregation decided to change locations, and purchased property, located on Oak Hill Road in Evansville (the Oak Hill Property). The funds for the purchase of the Oak Hill Property were derived from donations, borrowed money, and proceeds from the sale of other church property. The warranty deed stated that the property was conveyed to “Olivet Presbyterian Church of Evansville, Indiana.” Stip. Ex. 36. Olivet has been located on the Oak Hill Property since that time.

When it acquired the Oak Hill Property in 1968, Olivet's governance documents recognized that it was part of the UPCUSA and subject to the UPCUSA Constitution. Olivet further expressly recognized that it was subject to and governed by the Constitution in its 1969, 1971, and 1978 bylaws. In 1983, when the northern and southern branches of the Church reunited, Olivet became a member church of the PC(USA).

On November 29, 1994, Olivet incorporated as an Indiana not-for-profit corporation as “Olivet Presbyterian Church, Inc. In 1998, and again in 2000, Olivet amended its bylaws. In both instances, the amended bylaws provided that Olivet “recognizes the constitution of [PC(USA) ] as the authority for the governance of the church and its congregation.” Stip. Ex. 42. The bylaws further provided that they “s hall not be amended so as to conflict with the Constitution of [PC(USA) ].” Id.

Olivet Petitions to Leave PC(USA)

On July 30, 2006, Olivet petitioned the Presbytery, pursuant to the procedure set forth in the PC(USA) Constitution, as follows: “The congregation of [Olivet] respectfully asks permission of the Presbytery ... to be released from the [PC(USA) ], with property and finances, to the [EPC].” Stip. Ex. 51. The Constitution provides that after receiving the petition, the Presbytery would determine the future of Olivet's property, including the Oak Hill Property:

Whenever property of, or held for, a particular church of the [PC(USA) ] ceases to be used by that church as a particular church of the [PC(USA) ] in accordance with this Constitution, such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold as provided by the presbytery.

Stip. Ex. 2.

The Olivet petition was presented and discussed at the August 26, 2006, Presbytery meeting. No vote took place at this meeting because the EPC had not yet confirmed that it would accept Olivet if it were transferred. Because all necessary steps for transferring Olivet could not be completed by the December Presbytery meeting, the Presbytery Task Force proposed that the Olivet congregation and its pastor be dismissed to the EPC, but that property issues be resolved temporarily by entering into a lease for a consideration of $1 through August 1, 2007. Thus, on December 7, 2006, the Presbytery agreed to release Olivet from membership in PC(USA) to EPC, effective immediately, without property, but anticipating further negotiations for a property transfer and subject to certain conditions. The EPC received Olivet on December 8, 2006.

In February 2007, Olivet formed a new corporation, named “Olivet Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Evansville, Inc.,” which acquired the then-existing corporation, OPC, Inc.2 On April 23, 2007, Olivet's Clerk of Session sent an email to the Presbytery, informing it that Olivet had adopted the following session recommendation:

We are thankful for the partnership we have had in the past with the Presbytery ... and we are looking forward to continuing our ministry for Christ in the...

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2 cases
  • Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. v. OPC, Inc.
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court
    • 23 Ottobre 2012
    ...Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and granted summary judgment in favor of the Presbytery. Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. v. OPC, Inc., 940 N.E.2d 1188, 1197 (Ind.Ct.App.2010). We granted transfer, thereby vacating the opinion of the Court of Appeals. Ind.App. R. 58(A)(2). We hold ......
  • Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. v. OPC, Inc.
    • United States
    • Indiana Supreme Court
    • 31 Luglio 2012
    ...Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and granted summary judgment in favor of the Presbytery. Presbytery of Ohio Valley, Inc. v. OPC, Inc., 940 N.E.2d 1188, 1197 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010). We granted transfer, thereby vacating the opinion of the Court of Appeals. Ind. App. R. 58(A)(2). We h......

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