By Elaine Ayala, The San Antonio Express-News.
San Antonio’s oldest Protestant congregation will head to court Wednesday to plead that its property, including two valuable pieces of downtown real estate, be declared theirs and theirs alone — specifically not that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) nor that of the Mission Presbytery, the denomination’s regional council.
Lawyers for First Presbyterian Church originally sought what’s called a “quiet title” to its property when it filed suit in May. But since then, a web of claims, counterclaims and requests for temporary restraining orders and injunctions have made the case anything but quiet.
A group of congregants have intervened against their own church. The case has churned up issues about denominational and state laws over church property.
And it has highlighted cultural tensions not mentioned in court documents that are part of what’s driving a conservative congregation away from the Louisville, Kentucky-based denomination’s gradual liberal turn, including its decision to allow pastors to officiate over same-sex marriages, said several Presbyterian leaders and observers.
Under Presbyterian law, a church’s assets are held in trust for the denomination. When a church decides to separate, a “tithe” of 10 percent of its assets must go to its presbytery, or regional council, in this case Mission Presbytery, which oversees about 150 flocks in South Central Texas.
The tithe could amount to a lot. Though no one involved would put a figure on church assets that include a historic building, financial accounts and other property, the Bexar County Appraisal District assessed the land alone at about $6.8 million. Market value could be much higher.
First Presbyterian cites church law allowing exemptions to the tithe requirement, and state law, in its bid to be “free of any claimed trust interest of any kind in favor of the Presbyterian Church USA.”
Absent injunctive relief, the suit says, Mission Presbytery would have the power to seize control of church property, a claim that one church member called “paranoid.”