Just months after a vote to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) failed, the session of First Presbyterian Church (FPC) in Houston, Texas has filed a civil lawsuit seeking clear title of its property.
The session initiated a court action on May 29, seeking to clear the title of the church property from claims by the denomination that it holds a trust interest in FPC’s property.
During the time that FPC-Houston worked with New Covenant Presbytery and its “Reconciliation and Dismissal Procedure” to leave the PCUSA, the presbytery “made it clear that it believes that FPC owns its property for the benefit of the PCUSA. The FPC session believes it is necessary to resolve this issue once and for all – does PCUSA have any interest in FPC’s property?” according to a May 29 letter from the session to the congregation. “Clearing up property rights will honor the legacy of our past and provide stability for our future.”
The clerks of session – Jane Costello, Lesley Lilly and David McCarty – wrote that “It’s important to stress what this lawsuit is not. FPC is not seeking to leave the PCUSA through the filing of this legal action. Nor is this lawsuit seeking another vote on whether FPC should leave the PCUSA. All this action seeks is a determination from the court of whether FPC completely controls the use of its property.”
During a congregational meeting held Feb. 23, a vote to leave the PCUSA to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians fell 36 votes short of attaining the required two-thirds majority.
Out of approximately 3,100 members, 1,681 attended the meeting, with 1,085 of them voting in favor of leaving the PCUSA. The congregation needed at least 1,121 votes in favor of the motion for it to pass.
The policy required a quorum of 30 percent of the active membership attend and cast votes at the congregational meeting, with at least two-thirds of those present voting in favor of requesting dismissal to another Reformed body for the proposal to pass.
Had that two-thirds majority voted in favor of requesting dismissal, the presbytery would agree to it, allowing the congregation to depart with its property and name intact.
In an earlier Layman article, Senior Pastor Jim Birchfield said that the church had made a covenant with the presbytery that if the vote to be dismissed did not pass, the congregation would move into a time of intentional reconciliation between the bodies.
“We will do what we are called to do. We need to be a people of our word and move forward with the presbytery to begin a process of seeking healing with the denomination and members of our church,” Birchfield said. “It’s time for healing and reconciliation.”
The letter cites a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling which “is very favorable to local churches such as FPC and presents an historic opportunity to end a longstanding disagreement over the right of FPC to control its property.”
The court ruled that “no trust existed merely on the basis of a trust clause in the denomination’s constitution and, if any trust were found to exist, it would have to be as a result of compliance with Texas trust, property, and corporation law.
“Because FPC never agreed to place all of its property in trust for the denomination, we believe that we should be successful in this action,” the letter continued.