Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River v. Presbyterian Church USA

Summarized by:

  • Court: Oregon Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: Property Law
  • Date Filed: 11-29-2012
  • Case #: S059584
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Balmer, C.J. for the Court; Durham, J., De Muniz, J., Kistler, J. Walters, J. and Linder, J.
  • Full Text Opinion

Under the neutral principles approach to church property, an church affiliate holds its property in an irrevocable trust for the national organization when the national organization's constitution and the affiliate's own documents declare their intent that the property is held in trust.

Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River (Hope Presbyterian) appealed the Court of Appeals decision that the real property they possessed was held in trust for the national organization Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) (PCUSA), from whom they want to disaffiliate. PCUSA's governing documents indicate that all property held by churches affiliated with PCUSA was held in trust for PCUSA, and Hope Presbyterian's own bylaws and Amended Articles state that it is holding property in trust for PCUSA. In church property cases, there are two approaches used by courts to avoid First Amendment and Establishment Clause violations. The first approach is called the hierarchical deference approach, where courts give deference to internal church policies. The second approach is called the neutral principles approach, where courts use objective legal evidence and do not defer to the church's internal government. However, under the neutral principles approach, the court can still use evidence of church heirarchy in assessing the objective legal situation. The Supreme Court analyzed this case using the neutral principles approach and Oregon Trust Law. Under Oregon Trust Law, an owner of property can declare themselves to be the trustee of the property without a transfer of title. The Court found that Hope Presbyterian's previous conduct in adopting the governing bylaws of the national organization demonstrated intent to form and irrevocable trust. Affirmed.

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