Judge Emily Tobolowsky, of the 298th Judicial District in Dallas County, Texas, set the date for the non-jury trial of Highland Presbyterian Church, Inc. vs. Grace Presbytery at the same time she extended legal protections for the church’s property.
Highland Park is asking the court to declare that the church itself owns and controls all of its property, not the Presbyterian Church (USA). Filed on Sept. 10 in Dallas County District Court, the court documents cite the recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court declaring that Texas courts must follow neutral principles of law when deciding church property cases.
According to the PCUSA’s constitution, all church property is held in trust for the denomination. Highland Park disputes the PCUSA’s trust clause, stating in court documents that, “At no time in its history have the articles of incorporation for Highland Park Presbyterian Church contained any provision creating or establishing any trust, express or implied, in favor of a national denomination upon the property held by or for the local church of its civil corporation.”
In a Sept. 12 letter to the congregation, the session wrote that this “opportunity to clear the property of HPPC cannot be allowed to slip away. The court action frees the congregation from the distraction of the property and allows it to focus on other critical issues it must consider in deciding its future relationship with the PCUSA.”
Protection for church property
On Oct. 14, Tobolowsky granted the church a temporary injunction “identical to the temporary restraining order, specifying that the protections will last through the course of the lawsuit,” the release stated. The original order of protection was granted on Sept. 10.
According to a press release issued by the church, it first obtained a temporary restraining order against Grace Presbytery to “safeguard the congregation’s ownership rights to church property during the litigation.”
“Recent actions and statements by a regional governing body of the PCUSA led us to believe it might try to interfere with our denominational discussion,” said Mike Crain, chairman of the church’s board of trustees in a press release from the church. “We felt it was wise to take steps to allow our process to move forward without outside influence.”
A move by the presbytery to have the case heard in federal court ended on Oct. 7, when U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle remanded the case back to the court where HPPC originally filed — the 298th District Court in Dallas.
Since the lawsuit has been filed, the session of the church has scheduled a congregational meeting for Oct. 27 to decide on whether it should leave PCUSA and join a different Presbyterian denomination.
The 49-member session unanimously approved a resolution stating that it “believes God has called HPPC to terminate its voluntary affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA), and seek affiliation with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.”
“We are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are preserving them,” said the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of HPPC, in a press release posted on the church’s web site.
“This decision by our church leadership was not taken lightly. We have watched as the national denomination has turned away from some of the fundamental values that have been central to our local congregation for the last 90 years. We have reached the point that the changes imposed by the PCUSA have become a distraction that hinders the mission of our church,” he continued.
In the 2011 comparative statistics, Highland Park was listed as the fourth largest church in the denomination with 4,854 members. The court filing estimates the value of the real property owned by Highland Park Presbyterian Church to be $30 million.