A trial date of March 10, 2014, has been set for a judge to hear a lawsuit filed by the fourth largest church in the Presbyterian Church (USA) against its presbytery.
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.
Highland Park property ownership case headed to court
Highland Park Presbyterian schedules congregational vote on leaving the PCUSA
HPPC session approves of trustees filing lawsuit over church property
Dallas’ Highland Park Presbyterian Church obtains court protection for church property
Thanks for continuing to cover this story.
The key difference between the HPPC story, and the many other Layman stories about departing congregations, is that the other congregations are going through their discernment processes under the oversight of their presbyteries. The presbyteries are controlling the process. The presbyteries decide whether or not to release the congregations; the presbyteries decide whether the congregations get to keep their property, and if so, how much money they have to pay presbytery in exchange for that privilege. In the HPPC case, Grace Presbytery will play no role in the process. 10 days from now, HPPC members will vote to leave the PCUSA. Grace will be completely on the outside looking in as this happens.
It’s my hope the court continues toward the legally — and morally — correct conclusion that HPPC has full ownership of its property, and Grace has no claim on it. But even more, I hope that Grace officials will acknowledge that truth, avoid a trial, and cease their efforts to claim HPPC’s property or money.
Highland Park Presbyterian’s predicament is its own fault. Twenty-five years ago a majority of its members saw the handwriting on the Presbyterian wall and wanted to leave the PC(USA). But its senior pastor at the time announced that he would resign if the congregation voted to leave the PC(USA). That split the “leave” vote between those who wanted to leave and those who wanted to leave but didn’t want to lose their pastor. Because of the senior pastor’s divisive position, the “leave” vote was a majority, something around 55%, but fell short of the threshold the presbytery established for dismissal. So the majority left on their own to form a new church. Now that Highland Park is finally leaving, I hope they will have the grace to acknowledge that their former Presbyterian brothers and sisters in the faith were right all along.
Jim, I don’t disagree that HPPC should have left (in 1991, I think it was). But you can’t assume everyone has the same breaking point you have, and the same prescience about subsequent events in the PCUSA. Dr. Bell was a good man who, at least in hindsight, made a mistake. I’m not a member of HPPC anymore (I left in the ‘80s), but I have some connection to it, and I’m pretty sure the congregational vote to leave will be nearly unanimous this time. As you point out, though, a lot of pain could have been avoided if they’d made the right decision in ’91. By the way, I was interested to learn recently that Dr. Bell’s son is now an associate pastor at HPPC. It will perhaps be fitting, a sort of symbolic redemption, that he’ll be there as the congregation renounces its ties to the PCUSA.
Yes Don, I’m sure Dr. Bell was an exceptionally gifted pastor who may have made a mistake in that one instance. However he had lots of company back in those days among all those (Presbyterians for Renewal, Presbyterian Coalition, etc.) who mistakenly believed they could guide the PC(USA) back to its historic role as an important instrument of God for advancing the cause of Jesus in American life and culture. What a blessing for Presbyterians and the larger cause of Christ that they are finally realigning themselves within the Reformed family of faith so that all Presbyterians, including the PC(USA), can devote all their time and energy to mission unfettered by bickering with each other.