The Lawletter Vol 37 No 1
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has long been interpreted as precluding courts from deciding ecclesiastical issues, on the ground that the courts lack subject-matter jurisdiction over disputes involving church doctrine. Serb. E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 709 (1976) (finding that the controversy before the Court did not involve a property dispute but a religious dispute, "the resolution of which . . . is for ecclesiastical and not civil tribunals"); see also Banks v. St. Matthews Baptist Church, 706 S.E.2d 30, 33 (S.C. 2011) ("[W]hen a civil court is presented an issue that is a question of religious law or doctrine masquerading as a dispute over church property or corporate control, it must defer to the decisions of the proper church judicatories to the extent it concerns religious or doctrinal issues.").
The U.S. Supreme Court's review of church property disputes has evolved over a long period of time. In such cases, the courts have subject-matter jurisdiction and must review the issue raised. Early on, in Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1871), the Supreme Court adopted the "rule of compulsory deference" theory, which required the courts to decide property dispute issues in deference to the rule of the church in question. This theory was substantially modified in Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969), which required courts to apply general civil laws applicable to all property disputes to church property disputes. Later, in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), the Supreme Court adopted the "neutral principles" approach to determining church property issues. The Court explained:
The primary advantages of the neutral-principles approach are that it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organizations 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 religious doctrine, polity, and practice.
Id. at 603.
Importantly, in Jones, the Supreme Court did not overrule Watson but allowed States to decide whether to apply the compulsory-deference rule or the neutral-principles approach when confronted with church property disputes. Even today, however, most state courts have not clearly determined which direction to take when confronted with a church property dispute, many of which concern real estate and other significant assets. In Pearson v. Church of God, 478 S.E.2d 849 (S.C. 1996), the South Carolina Supreme Court specifically adopted the neutral-principles approach over the Watson approach. See also Banks, 706 S.E.2d at 33. Similarly, New York appears to have adopted the neutral-principles approach. See Presbytery of Hudson River of Presbyt. Church (USA) v. Trs. of First Presbyterian Church & Congreg. of Ridgeberry, 895 N.Y.S.2d 417 (App. Div. 2010). Texas courts weigh both approaches. See Mastern v. Diocese of Nw. Tex., 335 S.W.3d 880, 886 (Tex. App. 2011).