Supreme Court affirms decision in church property case

The exterior of First Presbyterian Church in Starkville. A decision was recently affirmed by the state Supreme Court that says the property will remain under the ownership of the church. (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)

The state’s highest court has affirmed a Chancery Court decision involving a property dispute at a church in Starkville.

On Thursday, the state Supreme Court issued an opinion of the finding of Oktibbeha County Chancery Court that First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Starkville is the owner of its property, not Presbytery of St. Andrew, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Inc. (PCUSA).

The church, located on University Drive next to Cadence Bank, has occupied the same piece of property for more than 160 years.

According to court filings, the church existed as an independent, unincorporated religious association until 2003, when the church’s governing board passed a resolution declaring it in the best interest of the church to incorporate as a nonprofit.

As part of its affiliation with PCUSA, the organization allowed for property exception under the PCUSA’s trust clause, which required affiliate churches to “obtain permission before selling, mortgaging, or otherwise encumbering the property of that particular church.”

When FPC decided to incorporate in 2003, court documents show the church placing in its bylaws a reaffirmation of its intent to remain exempt from the trust clause. PCUSA asserts the trust clause protects the physical location of the church in the event of irreconcilable or irreparable problems within the church body.

As disagreements with the PSUSA began to reach a boiling point, church members voted to cease monetary contributions to the organization and look at the possibility of joining another Presbyterian denomination. PSUSA responded by notifying FPC that it had appointed a Presbytery committee, called an Administrative Commission, to “inquire into and settle difficulties” at FPC.

Court documents say the commission was given authority to fire the church’s pastor and substitute itself for the church’s elected leadership, along with taking over the FPC’s property.

Then in March 2015, the church filed legal action against PSUSA to determine the property rights of the church.

The Supreme Court opinion states the FPC sought a declaratory judgment recognizing its exclusive ownership of all property held by it or in its name, free of any trust claimed by the PCUSA.
FPC also requested a temporary restraining order prohibiting the PCUSA from taking control or possession of FPC’s property or from interfering with FPC’s property ownership.

Following a May 2015 hearing, the Oktibbeha County Chancery Court entered a preliminary injunction for all property held by FPC against the PCUSA, which effectively blocked PCUSA from taking any action affecting the property rights of the church. The Presbytery also was enjoined from asserting a trust over FPC’s property.

“The only issue to be decided is whether PCUSA ever had a trust interest in FPC’s property,” wrote Justice Mike Randolph in his opinion. “We find that the chancellor properly found that it did not.”

Randolph continued, saying the case does not present a doctrinal dispute, and the court is authorized to exercise jurisdiction under neutral principles of law.

“The continued affiliation of FPC with PCUSA since the merger was based on FPC’s belief that it had availed itself of the eight- year-opt-out provision given it by PCUSA,” Randolph said. “FPC’s provision that it ‘will hold title to its property’ is clear evidence of its intent. We find that no express or implied trust existed between the parties.

Justice Leslie King said in the dissenting opinion that there was an incorrect interpretation of the “opt-out” provision and that PCUSA does have a resulting trust interested in the property.

“The majority asserts that ’It is clear that PCUS disclaimed any interest in church trust property until just before the merger forming PCUSA,’” King wrote. “This is incorrect. As early as 1925, the PCUS Book of Church Order required that title to the property of dissolved churches must be