What timing! Earlier this week we discussed how the ownership of church property may factor into a congregation's decision to break away from a denomination. Well, there has just been an interesting court ruling in Montana on a real-life case of this very issue.
Faith Lutheran Church, a congregation in Great Falls, Montana, decided by vote to ends its affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America due to the ELCA's ordination of gay clergy. According to the congregation's founding constitution, two-thirds support was needed to authorize disafilliation, but 90% in favor of disaffiliation was needed for the church property and endowment to go with the break-away congregation. The vote revealed 71% in favor of disaffiliation, with 29% voting to stay. Those that stayed, renamed the New Hope Lutheran Ministry, thus had legal claim to the property even though they had a much smaller membership than the break-away group (which kept the same Faith Lutheran Church name). However, the break-away group took over control of the property immediately after the vote.
New Hope sued to keep the property, with Faith Lutheran claiming that the dispute was about religious doctrine so that a court intervention giving New Hope the property would violate First Amendment rights. The case went to trial and appeals and just yesterday the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the original constitution was a legitimate contract and thus there was no reason for courts to intervene in a manner contrary to the group's constitution. For more legal information, see the write-up at Religion Clause, but for the newsy piece, see this article from a local newspaper.
Did those who voted for breaking-away automatically assume they would keep the property and the endowment? Would they have voted in favor of breaking-away if they anticipated this legal ruling?