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A Better Partnership
September 23, 2009

COA Opinion: Judiciary has a limited role in resolving property disputes in a hierarchical religious denomination

On September 22, 2009, the Court of Appeals published its decision in Lamont Community Church v. Lamont Christian Reformed Church, No. 283154. This case arises from a 2005 split in the congregation of the Christian Reformed Church ("CRC")-affiliated Lamont Christian Reformed Church ("LCRC"), whereby a number of people left LCRC and formed the Lamont Community Church ("LCC"). LCC demanded that LCRC turn over real property that LCRC had transferred to a separate, nondenominational holding corporation in 1998. The CRC hierarchy determined that the real property belonged to LCRC. LCC disagreed and filed a civil action. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision to uphold the CRC's resolution of the property dispute, reiterating that in dealing with a heriarchical denomination, the court's role is limited to enter judgment consistent with the denomination's determination.

LCC acknoweldged that CRC was heirarchical with respect to spiritual matters, but challegened the conclusion that CRC was hierarchical with respect to real property issues. The trial court had conducted an extensive evidentiary hearing and considered substantial testimonal evidence on this issue. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial court's approach, stating that the decision had to be made on the basis of the relevant governing documents. Thus, the Court of Appeals ignored the testimony, and focused the the documents. Ultimately, however, the Court of Appeals reached the same conclusion as the trial court—that the CRC is heirarchical with respect to real property.

LCC then argued that the trial court improperly used the hierarchical analysis to defer to the CRC's determination, rather than use the neutral principles of law method. The Court of Appeals noted that the neutral principles method is only applicable where there is an express trust in favor of one of the contending parties. LCC argued that the articles of incorporation of the property holding company created such an express trust. The Court of Appeals however, noted that CRC had already determined that LCRC did not have the authority to create the holding company or transfer church property to that holding company and that the Court "may not redecide those issues." Thus, there could be no express trust, and the hierarchical method must be applied.

Finally, LCC argued that the trial court erred regarding the effective date of the disaffiliation from CRC. But, the Court of Appeals noted that LCC's arguments rest on interpretation of ecclesiastical documents, and that those issues had already been resolved by the CRC hierarchy, and the courts cannot interfere in those issues of church polity.

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