On Feb. 20, Judge Wesley R. Ward granted the church’s request for summary judgment, “finding that there is no genuinely disputed issue of material fact and that plaintiff is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
In his decision, 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.”
“Judge Ward’s decision is firmly rooted in Texas law and the facts of this case,” said one of the church’s lawyers, Lloyd J. Lunceford, who is also a member of the board of directors of the Presbyterian Lay Committee. “The court rejected the presbytery’s argument that a valid trust arose under the express trust clauses that were added to the PCUS and PCUSA constitutions in the early 1980s, and the court rejected the presbytery’s novel, fallback argument that a trust or other property right arose under the denomination’s dissolving clause that dated to 1925. Needless to say, the leadership of FPC Houston is gratified and is looking forward to a bright future of Christian ministry without any distracting threat or confusion about the property rights of the local church. The local church’s legal representation was a team effort, involving my Baton Rouge firm, Taylor Porter, the Dallas-based firm of Craddock Davis & Krause, and the Houston-based firm of Susman & Godfrey. It was a privilege to be a part of that team and to help represent such a wonderful client.”
The decision stated that “all property … is held and owned by First Presbyterian Church in Houston … in full, complete, unfettered, fee simple and absolute ownership and title, all in accordance with the laws of the State of Texas.”
It also stated that the “trust and other property interests claims” made by the presbytery are “unenforceable and without legal force and effect.”
The judge’s decision included a permanent injunction that barred the presbytery, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and any people or entities related to it from doing anything that would interfere with or disturb First Presbyterian’s “ownership, use, control or disposition” of the property.
On May 29, 2014, the church filed a civil lawsuit seeking to clear the title of the church property from claims by the denomination that it holds a trust interest in FPC’s property. In a letter to the congregation citing its reasons for filing the lawsuit, the clerk’s of session referred to the congregation’s recent experience in working through New Covenant Presbytery’s “Reconciliation and Dismissal Procedure” and its failed voted to leave the PCUSA.
Earlier in the year, on Feb. 23, the church held a congregational meeting to vote on leaving the PCUSA and joining ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The vote 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.
While the church was working through the discernment process, 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.”