Who owns the property of the church

Key point 7-03.3. Most courts apply the "neutral principles of law" rule in resolving disputes over the ownership and control of property in "hierarchical" churches. Under this rule, the civil courts apply neutral principles of law, involving no inquiry into church doctrine, in resolving church property disputes. Generally, this means applying neutral legal principles to nondoctrinal language in any one or more of the following documents: (1) deeds to church property; (2) a church's corporate charter; (3) a state law addressing the resolution of church property disputes; (4) church bylaws; or (5) a parent denomination's bylaws.

* A New York court ruled that a local church retained ownership of its property following its disaffiliation from a parent denomination. A church affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted unanimously to disassociate from the parent denomination. A denominational agency (the "regional church") asked a court to declare that it was the lawful owner of the church's property including real estate, vehicles, investments, parishioner donations, furniture, ecclesiastical and sacramental items and church records and documents. The court noted that it could resolve church property disputes without violating the First Amendment if it did so on the basis of neutral principles of law requiring no analysis of church doctrine. The court applied the following test announced by the New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) in a previous case:

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