United Methodist Church v. St. Louis Crossing Independent Methodist Church, 970A150

Decision Date30 December 1971
Docket NumberNo. 970A150,No. 1,970A150,1
Citation276 N.E.2d 916,52 A.L.R.3d 311,150 Ind.App. 574
Parties, 52 A.L.R.3d 311 UNITED METHODIST CHURCH et al., Defendants-Appellants, v. ST. LOUIS CROSSING INDEPENDENT METHODIST CHURCH et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees
CourtIndiana Appellate Court
Basil H. Lorch, Jr., Lorch & Lorch, New Albany, Thomas C. Bigley, Jr., Sharpnack, Bigley & David, Columbus, for defendants-appellants

Ralph L. Jewell, Columbus, for plaintiffs-appellees.

SULLIVAN, Presiding Justice.

This action for injunction was brought by plaintiffs-appellees, a local religious congregation incorporated according to Indiana statute, against defendants-appellants, United Methodist Church and Richard E. Hamilton, the District Superintendent of the Bloomington District of the United Methodist Church. Plaintiffs sought to enjoin the defendant, Richard E. Hamilton, from conducting religious services in the name of the defendant, United Methodist Church, on the premises of the church property occupied by the plaintiffs. Preceding the action for injunctive relief, the plaintiffs communicated to the defendant a written resolution stating that the local congregation elected to separate itself from the body of the United Methodist Church due to doctrinal differences. At the same time, the pastor of the local congregation sent his resignation to Reverend Hamilton. Reverend Hamilton then sent a letter to the President of the Board of Trustees and to the pastor of the local congregation informing them that he would personally conduct religious services on the church property beginning June 30, 1968. Upon receipt of Reverend Hamilton's letter by the President of the Board of Trustees, the trustees, as representatives of the congregation, conveyed the property by warranty deed on June 27, 1968, to a third party, known as St. Louis Crossing Churches Parking Lot, Inc. The property was in turn leased back to the plaintiffs for $5 per year. The following day, June 28, 1968, the plaintiffs instituted this action for injunction.

An injunction order supported by special findings of fact was entered in favor of the plaintiffs. In their motion to correct errors, appellants alleged that several findings of fact were erroneous, and that the conclusion of the trial court was contrary to law.

The issue presented for review is whether the plaintiff church was a part of the defendant general church and, thus, whether the property titled in 'The Trustees of the Methodist E. Church at St. Louis Crossing, Bartholomew County, in the State of Indiana' was by law deemed to be held in trust for the use of

the general church.




The appellees first argue that the appellants failed to properly separate their allegations of error in the motion to correct errors and that the brief submitted by them is so defective under AP. 8.3 that the appeal must be dismissed. As the appellants correctly point out, however, the appellees filed two petitions for the extension of time in which to file their own brief, and such petitions waive any argument premised upon technical defects in the record or in the appellants' brief. City of Fort Wayne v. Maplewood Park Utilities, Inc. (1966 Ind.App.), 213 N.E.2d 337; Indiana Bk. & Tr. Co. v. Lincoln Nat.

Bk., etc. (1965) 137 Ind.App. 546, 206 N.E.2d 879



In Watson v. Jones (1871) 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 20 L.Ed. 666, the Supreme Court of the United States first classified the forms of church property questions brought before the court:

'1. The first of these is when the property which is the subject of controversy has been, by the deed or will of the donor, or other instrument by which the property is held, by the express terms of the instrument devoted to the teaching, support, or spread of some specific form of religious doctrine of belief.

'2. The second is when the property is held by a religious congregation which, by the nature of its organization, is strictly independent of other ecclesiastical associations, and so far as church government is concerend, owes no fealty or obligation to any higher authority.

'3. The third is where the religious congregation or ecclesiastical body holding the property is but a subordinate member of some general church organization in which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a general and ultimate power of control more or less complete, in some supreme judicatory over the whole membership of that general organization.' 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) organization.' 80 U.S. (13 Wall.)

Mr. Justice Miller, in finding church property in that case to be held by the third method, stated:

'Here is . . . (a) case . . . of property purchased for the use of a religious congregation, and so long as any existing religious congregation can be ascertained to be that congregation, or its regular and legitimate successor, it is entitled to the use of the property. In the case of an independent congregation we have pointed out how this identity, or succession, is to be ascertained, but in cases of this character we are bound to look at the fact that the local congregation is itself but a member of a much larger and more important religious organization, and is under its government and control, and is bound by its orders and judgments.' 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 726--727.

The United States Supreme Court thus indicated one hundred years ago that the title to property held by a local congregation may be held by implied trust for a general church depending upon the relation found in fact to exist between the local and general churches.

The legal consequences of the actual relationship existing between two churches 'In considering questions in regard to the use of church property it is usually important in absence of express language in the deed conveying the property or making the gift to consider the 'polity' or form of church government which the particular denomination has. In the note in 75 Har.L.Rev. at pages 1143--4, the three general types of church polity are defined as follows:

claiming the same church property can only be determined as to such property when the polity of the denomination is known. In the recent case of Maryland & Virginia Elder. of Church of God v. Church of God (1968) 249 Md. 650, 662, 241 A.2d 691, 698 2 (hereinafter referred to as Sharpsburg), it was stated that:

'At least three kinds of internal structure, or 'polity' may be discerned; congregational, presbyterial, and ediscopal. In the congregational form, each local congregation is self-governing. The presbyterial polities are representative, authority being exercised by laymen and ministers in an ascending succession of judicatories--presbytery over the session of the local church, synod over presbytery, and general assembly over all. In the episcopal form power reposes in the clerical superiors such as bishops. Roughly presbyterial and episcopal polities may be considered hierarchical as opposed to congregational polities in which the autonomy of the local congregation is the central principle."


In proper cases, the duty of ascertaining polity must necessarily fall upon the trial court. Yet such duty cannot be carried out of it would plunge the court into ecclesiastical considerations. Polity must then, when disputed, be so easily ascertainable from its normal determinants that the trial court does not violate the First Amendment. 3

It is clear that a hierarchical polity serves as the foundation for the implied trust theory of parental property control. It is equally clear that a hierarchical church organization, as opposed to the purely congregational form of organization 4 found in Doughty v. Herr (1933) 97 Ind.App. 427, 185 N.E. 657, a case much relied on by appellees, 5 is present here. 'In many of the hierarchical churches there may be provisions in their Constitutions, Canon Law, or other controlling documents or statutes which make it clear that the property is held in trust for the uses of the parent church and its discipline and appointments * * * It thus appears that there are three methods by which a hierarchical denomination may maintain control of local church property:

Where a hierarchical organization exists there may be at least three methods of property control exerted, according to the original Sharpsburg opinion, supra:

(1) It may require reverter clauses in the deed to the property of the local churches.

(2) It may provide in its constitution or by some authoritative source for the reverting of the local church property to the hierarchical body upon withdrawal by a local congregation with an implied consent by the local church to this provision.

(3) It may obtain from the General Assembly an act providing for such a result.' 249 Md. 650 at 662, 663, 241 A.2d 691 at 698, 699.

From the post-Watson era to the present our nation's highest court had adhered to Watson, warning civil courts against resolving church property disputes or other church controversy through reliance upon interpretation of ecclesiastical doctrine. 6 By definition an ecclesiastical matter is one which concerns the doctrine, creed, or form of worship of the church, or the adoption and enforcement within a religious association of needful laws and regulations for the government of membership, and the power of excluding from such associations those deemed unworthy of membership by the legally constituted authorities of the church.

Olear v. Haniak (1939) 235 Mo.App. 249, 131 S.W.2d 375, 380--381; Western Conf. of Original Free Will Baptists v. Miles (1963) 259 N.C. 1, 129 S.E.2d 600, 606; Clark v. Brown (Tex.Civ.App.1908) 108 S.W. 421, 433.

The United States Supreme Court has steadfastly held governmental incursions into such ecclesiastical matters to be violative of the...

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