After agreeing to pay $1-million, First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Houston now has clear title to its property.
The settlement agreement between FPC and New Covenant — reached on May 10, 2016 — ended two years of civil litigation between the two parties. The church filed its civil lawsuit on May 29, 2014 seeking to clear the title of its property from claims by the denomination that it holds a trust interest in FPC’s property.
According to a letter posted on the church’s web site, and an announcement posted on the presbytery web site, FPC agreed to pay the presbytery $700,000 in semi-annual installments of $175,000. Also, the church will make a $300,000 mission payment — four quarterly payments of $15,000 for five years — to a mission partner chosen by FPC Houston in consultation with the presbytery.
The total amount of $1-million is less than one percent of the church’s total asset value.
The settlement also offers protection to the FPC’s pastors and session from any disciplinary action by the presbytery, the synod or the PCUSA for five years.
The letter to the church, signed by the pastor and clerk of session, said that the “financial settlement was made in part in recognition of the long-standing relationship between FPC Houston and presbytery and in support of the shared mission values that are at the heart of both organizations.”
In Feb., 2015, a judge had ruled that FPC owned its property. Judge Wesley R. Ward found that there was “no enforceable trust or property interest created by any version of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order or the Presbyterian Church of the United States Book of Church Order under the neutral principle factors set forth by the Texas Supreme Court in Masterson V. Diocese of NW Texas.”
That decision had been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston. This settlement ends the appeal.
“Despite the strength of our case, there is always a risk of an unexpected decision from a court,” stated a FAQ document posted on the church web site. “Settling the litigation eliminates the risk of a judicial surprise and allows us to conclude the matter in a peaceful and respectful manner, honoring our long-standing relationship with the Presbytery of New Covenant.”
The document also makes it clear that the legal settlement does not change the church’s denominational affiliation. “We remain affiliated with the PCUSA as a member church of the Presbytery of New Covenant.” It continued:
That being said, It was clear from the vote taken over two years ago that a substantial majority of our membership was sufficiently concerned about the direction of the PCUSA to vote in favor of dismissal to another denomination. In session’s view, nothing has happened since the vote to ameliorate that concern, and certain actions of the PCUSA since that time have increased the discomfort of many within our congregation. The session is keenly aware of the concerns expressed by the majority of our membership, while recognizing that some members feel differently. As a part of its spiritual leadership function, session regularly assesses the relationship of FPC within the PCUSA and whether continued affiliation is in the long-term best interest of FPC. That assessment is ongoing and will continue. If at some point in the future session believes that the mission of FPC is best served by a reconsideration by the membership of our denominational status, session will bring that issue to the membership. Until such time, FPC continues to be an active part of the PCUSA and the session intends to honor the obligations and duties of membership within the PCUSA.