David R. and Sherry Kirschner Berz Research Professor of Law and Religion, George Washington University Law School
06/12/2008 - In 2003, the Episcopal Church, USA, ordained a gay bishop, igniting an intense debate within the church over its views on homosexuality. Some local congregations that opposed the ordination voted to break away from the national denomination, leading to complicated legal disputes over the ownership of church property. There have been a number of similar disputes in recent years involving Presbyterian churches and other denominations. To explore these church property disputes and their constitutional implications, the Pew Forum turns to church-state scholar Robert W. Tuttle.
Robert W. Tuttle, David R. and Sherry Kirschner Berz Research Professor of Law and Religion, George Washington University Law School
Jesse Merriam, Research Associate, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Question & Answer:
What prompted these legal disputes over church property?
A: My guess is that there are about 100 congregations around the country involved in this type of litigation. Most of the lawsuits have involved more conservative congregations leaving national denominations due to a perception that the national denominations have become too liberal, particularly on issues involving homosexuality.
The breakaway congregations want to retain ownership of church property, but the national denominations claim that they own the property and that the breakaway congregations forfeit any right to the property when they leave.
The primary type of property at issue in these disputes is the congregation's house of worship. For example, in a case taking place in Virginia, the fight is over the historic Falls Church, where George Washington was a church warden. But disputes also involve other sorts of property. One case, for example, involves a corporate jet that the local congregation bought.
Read the complete Q&A Courts Will Decide Church Property Disputes on the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Web site.