November 10, 2011
Oregon SCT to Address Church Property Dispute
The Oregon Supreme Court will review a Court of Appeals decision, Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River v. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 255 P3d 645 (2011), that reversed a trial court decision involving real property owned by a church. The Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River owns a church building and holds title to the real property in its name. The church was affiliated with the United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (UPCUSA), and in 1983 UPCUSA merged with PCUSA - Presbyterian Church (USA) and as part of the merger, adopted the PCUSA Book of Order. The Book of Order declares that all property held by an individual church is held in trust for the denomination.
The current case arose because in 2007 Hope decided to disaffiliate with PCUSA. A dispute developed around the ownership of the land and Hope brought the suit to quiet title. The trial court resolved the case using the "neutral secular principles" doctrine, looking at the legal documents and disregarding purely church documents. The majority of states follow this approach. The Court of Appeals applied the "hierarchical deference" doctrine, followed by a minority of states, and held in favor of PCUSA. The Court of Appeals also said that under the neutral principles doctrine PCUSA would prevail.
The Supreme Court will decide which of these two doctrines should apply in Oregon and whether a trust was created over Hope's property. The Supreme Court will hear the case on March 5, 2012.
Thanks to Samantha Benton for bringing the case to my attention.
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