Tennessee Supreme Court Clarifies the Law in Church Property Disputes

September 21, 2017

In 2011, a disagreement arose among members of the Moscow, Fayette County, Temple Church of God in Christ about the person assigned to be its pastor by the parent denomination, the Church of God in Christ, Inc., (COGIC), headquartered in Memphis.  The disagreement culminated in a dispute about the ownership and control of the church property, with some members of the church barring the person COGIC had assigned as pastor from entering the building or administering the church.  After this incident, COGIC filed suit, seeking a declaration that it owned and had the right to control the real and personal property of the Fayette County church.  In 2015, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The trial court concluded that resolving the property dispute would force it to decide an internal religious dispute about who was the pastor of the local church, which was prohibited by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Court of Appeals in Jackson affirmed the trial court’s decision in 2016. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted COGIC permission to appeal and overruled the trial court and Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court explained that Tennessee courts can and should resolve genuine church property disputes, so long as courts defer to religious organizations on disputes about church discipline, faith, ecclesiastical rule, custom, law, church polity, or the internal governance of the religious organization.  The Supreme Court explained that Tennessee courts apply the hybrid neutral principles of law test when resolving church property disputes.  Under this test, a court examines the deeds and other legal documents conveying ownership of church property but also examines the governing documents of the hierarchical religious denomination.  If the governing documents of a hierarchical denomination say that local church property is held in trust for the hierarchical denomination, then the court will enforce this language and impose a trust in favor of the hierarchical denomination, even if deeds and other legal documents do not create a trust.

Applying these holdings, the Supreme Court deferred to COGIC’s resolution of the ecclesiastical question of who was the rightful pastor of the Fayette County church. As for the property dispute, the Supreme Court enforced the language in COGIC’s governing documents which stated that local churches, like the Fayette County church, held their property in trust for COGIC.  Because the Fayette County church had voluntarily associated with and agreed to be bound by these governing documents when it joined COGIC, the Supreme Court concluded that COGIC was the rightful owner of the Fayette County church’s real and personal property. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court to conduct any further proceedings and issue any orders necessary to give COGIC ownership and control of the Fayette County church’s real and personal property.

Justice Holly Kirby wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing with the outcome of the case, but disagreeing with the Court’s characterization of the First Amendment’s ban on courts deciding religious questions as a subject matter jurisdictional bar instead of an affirmative defense.  While this difference would not affect the outcome of this case, it could affect the outcome of other cases following it as precedent.

To read the opinion in Church of God in Christ, Inc., et al. v. L. M. Haley Ministries, Inc., et al., authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, and the concurring opinion by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.