A judge has ruled that a Mississippi church – not the Presbyterian Church (USA) – owns its property.
In First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of Starkville Mississippi vs. Presbytery of St. Andrew, the Presbyterian Church (USA) Inc., the Honorable H.J. Davidson Jr., granted the church’s motion for summary judgment “affirming its right to hold title to its property without interference of claim from the PCUSA.”
FPC-Starkville filed a lawsuit in early 2015 with the Chancery Court of Oktibbeha County in Miss., asking for a declaratory judgment “recognizing that FPC Starkville alone is the absolute, full, exclusive, fee simple owner of all real or personal property that is owned by FPC Starkville.”
Further, it asked the court to declare that neither the presbytery, nor the PCUSA, had “no right to or interest in any of the real or personal property so owned by FPC Starkville.”
“Simply put,” Davidson wrote in his July 27 order the court is being asked “who is entitled to or controls the real property occupied by FPC?”
Davidson was very clear that “The underlying reason for the schism is not the issue before this court, nor should it be. The issue is the relationship between the local church (FPC) and the parent church (PCUSA) and whether such relationship gives rise to a trust property interest in PCUSA to the real and personal property located in Oktibbeha County, title to which is held of record by FPC.”
In dispute was seven parcels of land in Oktibbeha County that were acquired over a period of 160 years of which “FPC obtained the deeds of conveyance and paid all consideration for the title to the various properties. There are not trust provisions in any deed that the court can ascertain,” he said.
“It is undisputed that the deeds to all the property at issue have no trust provision,” wrote Davidson. “Regardless of the claim of trust, a strict reading of the recorded deeds reveal no trust provision in any other party as trustee, not is there a reverter clause contain in any of the instruments.”
Davidson said there was no “traditional express trust … nor any legally enforceable and separate traditional trust instrument that would operate to vest a beneficial interest in and over the legally titled property of FPC to PCUSA.”
He also declared that there was no “constructive trust as implied by law based on the facts as agreed upon by the parties.”
In his order, Davidson referred to an affidavit submitted by the church “of Caroline Laurie Griffith, who represents herself as an officer of the PCUSA with authority to represent PCUSA. The affiant states that PCUSA has no ownership interest in and no right to control or maintain the property of FPC and further disclaims any and all interest in the property of FPC. Obviously the corresponding question is one of the authority of his agent and the representation she has made. It would seem the head entity takes this position, then any subordinate entity as a member of that denomination could not assert any contrary position.”
Davidson wrote that the “creation of trusts and intent must be clear and convincing. To uphold the argument of PCUSA would be contrary to that standard, unreasonably deprive FPC of its property with just compensation, violate its constitutional right of the free ownership of property and be unjust and inequitable. For these reasons, the Court grants FPC’s motion for Summary Judgment as well as a permanent injunction, affirming its right to hold title to its property without interference or claim from PCUSA.”
The 506-member church was represented by Lloyd J. Lunceford and Ryan K. French of the Taylor Porter law firm in Baton Rouge, LA and by Dolton W. McAlpine of the McAlpine firm in Starkville, MS.