Judge rules in case of divided Presbyterian Church

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OLATHE, KS (KCTV) -

A fight between two factions of a church in Overland Park is coming closer to an end and a judge’s ruling on the dispute has taken a turn that sets it apart from similar battles that came before.

The split in the Presbyterian Church of Stanley was brewing for years and came to a head last summer. By fall, it led to a lawsuit over which group gets to keep the building and property at West 148th Street and Antioch Road where both denominations have been worshiping in separate rooms for almost a year now. It’s an uneasy and temporary arrangement that was settled on only with court intervention.

When parishioners with each group pass in the hallway, they are polite, but it’s hard not to notice a certain tension. People on both sides say the process has been painful.

“There are a lot of hurting people right now, people who have raised their families here,” said Ellen Crain, a PCUSA parishioner, “There’s even division within families. It’s terrible.”

“These are people who sang in choir together,” said Pat Fuller, a church elder with the breakaway group. “They feel financially invested, spiritually invested. I understand that. But we do too.”

The church was founded by the Presbyterian Church (USA), also referred to as the PCUSA. It’s what some might consider the “mainline” church. Last year, after much back and forth, the church’s pastor and a group of at least 300 parishioners decided to leave the PCUSA and join a new denomination with a more conservative view of theology. That group, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, also known as the ECO, is growing in numbers. The PCUSA numbers are dwindling, though the PCUSA is still by far the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.

“Denominations come into being oftentimes when there are great reactions to great social movements,” said Randal Jelks, a religious studies professor at the University of Kansas.

Jelks is also an ordained Presbyterian minister.

“This goes back all the way to American slavery,” said Jelks. “All protestant denominations, the majority of them, split in the United States over the question of the Civil War.”

The conflict at the Presbyterian Church of Stanley is partly over social issues like gay clergy and gay marriage, but the pastor for the breakaway group says it’s about more than that.

“They (the PCUSA) see the church first as an institution rather than as a movement of people, that it’s about rules and regulations,” said Rev. Eric Laverentz, the pastor for the ECO faction.

The rules and regulations are a key part of the legal argument over who owns the property.

Courts have considered church property matters in different ways. One approach is to give preference to civil law, what's called a “neutral-principles approach.” Another, called the “hierarchal deference approach,” defers to church law when a property matter involves a church with a hierarchical national structure.

The PCUSA has a governmental structure.

The church and congregation is run by a “session,” the pastor and a group of elders. Above them is the “Presbytery,” a regional branch. Above that is a “Synod" and above that a “General Assembly.”

The Presbytery in this case founded the church in 1979 and funded it early on. It guaranteed loans and determined the pay structure for pastors. From at least 1983 forward, however, the congregation has paid for everything. The question of fairness is tricky because the congregation consists of people who have come and gone and now includes people loyal to two different denominations.

Legally, what it came down to was when it was appropriate for the state to apply civil law versus church law.

For more than a century, Kansas courts have applied a hierarchical deference approach in church property disputes. The PCUSA Constitution says that all church property is held “in trust” for the larger church.

Reverend Charles Spencer, the Executive Presybter for this region, said it is a church matter that the state should not interfere with.

“It is a theological dispute. It’s a theology of property issue,” Spencer said. “Our theology of property is that the church property belongs to the whole church, ultimately belongs to God and has been paid for and given by generations of people and not merely the people who are present at any given moment in time.”

In this case, for the first time, the judge, Kevin Moriarty, took a neutral-principles approach to determining ownership.

Moriarty said in his ruling that church law claiming the property was held “in trust” for the regional branch wasn’t relevant. The deed names the local church, not the Presbytery. The mortgages name the local church, not the Presbytery. If the presbytery wanted a claim, the judge said, they could have placed a provision on those legal documents when they signed over the deed to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley decades ago.

The building and property, he said, belonged to the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, not Heartland Presbytery, which had filed the suit.

But that left the question of defining the local church. When it’s split between two factions, which faction represents the "true church?” On that, the judge deferred to the PCUSA Constitution and said the faction loyal to the founding denomination are the Presbyterian Church of Stanley and thus the owners of the property.

The judge explained that Kansas law restricts the degree to which neutral principals can be applied, particularly in regards to a schism within a church.

Both groups had said prior to the Wednesday ruling that they were eager to hear a decision so they could move forward, but doing so won’t be easy.

“It is a difficult thing,” said Spencer. “There are relationships involved. There’s history, tradition.”

“People have been married here,” said Fuller. “We’ve had baptisms here, births here, laughter, tears. I mean there’s a lot that’s connected.”

It’s not clear when, or if, the breakaway group will have to leave the building as just a memory. An appeal is still an option as is a sale of the property. But their pastor says they will thrive regardless because the rift has made them unified.

“Because a church is about people,” said Laverentz, “and we’ve got great people here and people who are about the right thing.”

The judge gave the two groups 10 days to come to an agreement on how to occupy the building.

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