A message from the church session has been posted on the First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem web site, explaining why it asked the “Trustees to seek definitive answer to the question of the ownership of the Church’s property. Accordingly, the Trustees filed suit in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas to simply seek confirmation from the civil courts of Pennsylvania that they do, indeed, hold title to all property of the Church as mandated by the corporate bylaws of the Church.” The message read, in part:
” … we expect that when the Presbytery steps into our Bethlehem church they acknowledge that they are on holy ground and are obligated to operate with the highest levels of integrity, candor and competence.
Sadly, the Lehigh Presbytery has not operated in this manner. The entire Presbytery process has been sloppy and arbitrary culminating with the straw poll. Straw poll ballots were sent to deceased members and not sent to some active members. Even more troubling, the individually assigned voting codes were inadvertently sent by the vendor to the Presbytery Engagement Team at the beginning of the voting process. The Presbytery did not disclose or admit this fact and denied it when asked directly. The Session is unanimous in its concern that the recent straw poll results are suspect. This concern is based on the May 2015 survey results, focus group results, voting results at our congregational meeting, the PET’s own admission of the majority of our congregation’s convictions to move to ECO, and the PET’s inappropriate access to the survey codes.
This compromised straw poll (which was not even a required part of the Presbytery’s written dismissal) was to lead to a congregational vote, which the presbytery will now not allow. This unilateral decision to end the process was reached by the Presbytery team alone while ignoring the majority voice of the congregation heard at each point of the process.
Of critical importance is the fact that the straw poll was never intended to be determinative or dispositive of the dismissal process. Its results, whether compromised or not, were to be a gauge assisting in the process, not an end unto itself. Using it as such is improper and undermines the manner in which our church is designed to operate. The majority of the church unquestionably seeks dismissal to ECO, which as a right of conscience the congregation should be able to do.
By our church charter property use is determined by majority rule, not minority veto or presbytery fiat. We, therefore, feel it is imperative, and in the best interests of the majority of the congregation, both spiritually and from a stewardship perspective, to protect the rights of conscience of the majority.”
By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call.
BETHLEHEM, Pa. — In a signal of their determination to move forward with a break from the mainline Presbyterian denomination, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem filed litigation Friday requesting the court’s assistance in determining who owns the church’s 31.5-acre property worth millions of dollars.
The church claims ownership of the property, assessed at $7.9 million according to Northampton County records, because their name is on the 1955 title for the property. But that runs counter to the position by the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has ruled that a congregation’s property is “regarded as held in trust for the benefit” of the denomination.
On Friday the church filed an action seeking the court’s confirmation of its ownership of the property as well as an injunction to stop the Lehigh Presbytery, a governing body in the Presbyterian Church (USA), from seizing any property or replacing the elected leadership.
Jackie Etter, executive director and interim head of staff, said the church’s leadership is determined to follow through on what they say is the wish of the majority of the congregation to join a “denominational home more fitting.
“We had to determine what God was calling us to do here in Bethlehem,” Etter said of the church’s decision to pursue legal action. “This has become such an issue for so many churches across the country.”