Some cases related to church disaffiliations have landed in U.S. civil courts.
In the U.S., civil courts can adjudicate inter-church property matters so long as their methods don’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Most states apply neutral principles, meaning they seek to resolve disputes on a case-by-case basis using the same property rules that apply in the secular world. A minority of states use what is called the “deference” method, meaning the state’s courts show “deference” to the decision made by the highest church body involved in the matter.
Here is a look at some recent developments.
In addition to the lawsuit filed by First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Conference is facing a separate lawsuit from the Church of the Servant. In that case, the church is asking the court to compel the conference to schedule another church vote on disaffiliation under Paragraph 2553.
Last year, the congregation held a disaffiliation vote and then a reconsideration of that vote. While a clear majority supported disaffiliation, the vote fell short both times of the two-thirds majority threshold that Paragraph 2553 requires. The church said there is renewed interest in disaffiliation and has requested the district superintendent administer another vote. The conference has not agreed to that request.
“Church of the Servant’s request would require us to modify the disaffiliation process we have been using for all other churches seeking disaffiliation from the Oklahoma Annual Conference,” the conference said.
The North Carolina Conference is facing a lawsuit filed by the former Fifth Avenue United Methodist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. The church says it was seeking to vote on disaffiliation when the conference closed the historic, downtown church instead.
According to the most recent data from the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration, the church’s attendance had declined in recent years and it had an average attendance of 18 people as of 2021.
The church is asking the court to reopen the doors of Fifth Avenue to the congregation for worship services and grant it the right to continue with the disaffiliation process to retain the property.
“This lawsuit was a last resort,” said Gavin B. Parsons, the church’s attorney. “Fifth Avenue gave the Conference every opportunity to do the right thing, but they refused.”
While declining to comment on the particulars of the lawsuit, the conference said in a statement, “the location of the church property is well-suited to meet the missional needs of the North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church ‘to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’”
A Florida judge in April dismissed a lawsuit, originally filed by 106 churches, against the Florida Conference that sought to circumvent the financial obligations of Paragraph 2553. Sixty-four churches initially appealed that ruling, but the conference has learned that 50 of those churches have requested to be removed from this case. Nine churches have now officially withdrawn from the appeal and will be considered for disaffiliation under Paragraph 2553 at a special session of the Florida Annual Conference on Aug. 5.
A dismissal of a similar lawsuit against the Western North Carolina Conference faces no appeal, and churches are now following the disaffiliation process.
The Northern Illinois Conference is trying to reach a resolution without going to court with Korean United Methodist Church in Naperville. The church was going through the disaffiliation process and its exit was among those the Northern Illinois Annual Conference was set to consider in June.
But after its previous pastor was relieved of his credentials and the church received a new pastor, the church announced it had ended its relationship with The United Methodist Church and blocked conference representatives from entry.
“I am grieved by this hostile turn of events,” Northern Illinois Conference Bishop Dan Schwerin told the conference. “The conference has treated the people of Korean United Methodist Church in Naperville with respect and dignity.
“Those who have declared themselves non-United Methodist and taken over conference property have stepped beyond the bounds of civility and appropriate remedies will be sought. We have a duty to protect the mission of the annual conference. Please pray for this congregation that is suffering with complicated loss, and for our capacity to live into God’s vision for us all.”
A judge ruled that the Arkansas Conference will have temporary control of the Jonesboro First United Methodist Church property as of Aug. 1.
That means members who disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church must vacate the building while a group that wants to stay United Methodist can return at least until a trial scheduled in January.
Meanwhile, the conference has reached a settlement with another church in Searcy that broke away from the denomination. The breakaway congregation is still worshipping in its original building while a group of church members in Searcy who want to stay United Methodist are worshipping at a nearby Presbyterian church.
Both lawsuits came after Arkansas Annual Conference voters at a special session last year blocked the disaffiliation of three churches. The pastor and most members of a third church in Cabot opted to leave and start a new church, while the group of members who want to remain United Methodist retained use of the building.
The North Georgia Conference board of trustees announced June 2 that the conference had restarted the disaffiliation process under Paragraph 2553.
The decision followed two civil court rulings ordering the conference to allow churches that sued the conference leadership to vote on disaffiliation. The trustees’ announcement also applies to churches that have not been involved in litigation.
The North Georgia Conference plans to hold a special session Nov. 18 to vote on disaffiliation requests.
The Alabama-West Florida, Baltimore-Washington, Eastern Pennsylvania, Indiana, Susquehanna and Rio Texas conferences are still engaged in legal action involving churches that want to leave with property without following Paragraph 2553.
Return to main story, Judge orders Oklahoma to redo special session
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