Mississippi Presbytery approves end to church property ownership cases
By Patrick Jean, March 1, 2007
Members of the Presbytery of Mississippi recently were told what would happen if the presbytery contested litigation by three member churches:
It would lose.
They also were told that what they do should serve as a model for other churches, presbyteries and the Presbyterian Church (USA) to follow.
Message received. Presbytery members voted nearly unanimously at their Feb. 24 stated meeting to instruct their attorney to amicably resolve lawsuits filed by three churches – First Presbyterian of Pascagoula, First Presbyterian of Vicksburg and J.J. White Memorial Presbyterian in McComb – that sought clear title to their properties without interference by the presbytery or the Presbyterian Church (USA).
A final declaratory judgment was entered in the McComb case Feb. 26, and similar judgments await the judge’s approval in the Pascagoula case and presbytery attorney Wayne Dowdy’s signature in the Vicksburg case.
The resolutions will serve as a foundation for other Mississippi Presbytery churches that want title to their properties, said Stewart Robison, attorney for J.J. White and an elder of the church. “I had a couple of people ask me for cards” at the stated meeting, he said with a laugh.
Mark Edwards, attorney for First Presbyterian Pascagoula who also serves as an elder and clerk of the session for the church, wants the manner in which the cases were resolved to be a template, too. “I hope for the good of God’s church and everyone involved,” he said, “that this can serve as a model for dispute resolution elsewhere.”
New policy prompts lawsuits
The cases followed a new presbytery policy, adopted Nov. 30, 2006, not to “resist any particular church of the Presbytery of Mississippi which would ask the courts of the State of Mississippi to clear its property of any claims made by higher governing bodies against that property.”
The policy got its first test exactly one week after its enactment, when J.J. White initiated a civil-court action seeking a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and declaratory judgment. On Dec. 15, Pike County Chancery Court Chancellor Deborah K. Halford signed a stipulated preliminary injunction that prevented the presbytery from staking a claim on J.J. White’s property.
First Presbyterian Vicksburg went to court next. The church filed a petition for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and declaratory judgment Jan. 4 in Warren County Chancery Court. On Jan. 16, court Chancellor Vicki R. Barnes signed a stipulated preliminary injunction in which the presbytery agreed not to make legal efforts to assert ownership of First Presbyterian Vicksburg’s property.
Two days later, the Presbytery Council of Mississippi Presbytery appointed a three-person subcommittee to draft a proposed final judgment on the J.J. White lawsuit. Robison said then that he and the subcommittee would make the judgment a template to apply to the First Presbyterian Vicksburg case and any future cases.
The next case came Feb. 5, when First Presbyterian Pascagoula filed a petition for a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and declaratory judgment in Jackson County Chancery Court. Edwards said the impetus for the lawsuit was concern about “The Louisville Papers,” documents prepared by PCUSA lawyers that urge presbyteries to use aggressive measures when trying to claim local church property.
“We thought that perhaps we should take the action necessary to acquire ‘quiet title’ to our property,” he said.
However, there never seemed to be any doubt that the cases would be resolved amicably. Attorneys for each church and the Rev. John C. Dudley, stated clerk of the presbytery, all said they expected a peaceful solution.
‘Serve the Lord, not property issues’
The proposed final judgment of the J.J. White case was placed on the docket of the presbytery’s stated meeting Feb. 24 at Handsboro Presbyterian Church in Gulfport. The Rev. Steve Ramp, chairman of the subcommittee that drafted the judgment, made a presentation.
Ramp did not return a call seeking comment left at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, where he is pastor. But others in attendance at the presbytery meeting praised his words.
“He put to rest a situation that was fast going downhill,” Robison said. He was supposed to speak after Ramp, but said he didn’t have to because Ramp eloquently made the points that J.J. White’s position was solid and the presbytery wouldn’t have a positive outcome in court.
Ramp said that, “What holds the presbytery and the denomination together is our love of Christ,” said Jim Chaney, an attorney and elder for First Presbyterian Vicksburg. “We want to serve the Lord, not property issues.”
Ramp, who is a former attorney, conveyed and “recognized the potential cost to all parties,” Edwards said. ” ‘If you do win, what are you going to do – pay all the mortgages?'”
Edwards spoke at the meeting to allay fears that the First Presbyterian Pascagoula lawsuit was a precursor to the 120-year-old church leaving the PCUSA. “Only a court fight might have served as grounds for discontent” with the denomination, he said.
J.J. White and First Presbyterian aren’t leaving the denomination either, their attorneys said. Robison said he hopes to move forward in unity, and Chaney said what happened at the meeting strengthens the presbytery.
When the matter was put to a decision, only one presbytery member – the Rev. John Larson, pastor of First Presbyterian of Natchez – voted no. He said he was opposed to the settlements as a matter of principle.
Despite what their attorneys said, Larson believes the churches plan to disaffiliate from the PCUSA. “There’s no logical reason to deal with property,” he said, “unless you’re unhappy enough that you want to leave.”
‘Couldn’t be more pleased’
Robison said the “template” judgments will allow future property ownership cases involving Mississippi Presbytery and member churches to be more amicable than the current case pitting First Presbyterian of Corinth against St. Andrew Presbytery.
“The St. Andrew case,” he said, “is an example of how trying to play hardball won’t work – especially in Mississippi.”
Edwards praised Mississippi Presbytery for handling the cases in a “very professional and spiritually mature” manner.
He looks forward to his church continuing its work with the presbytery on providing financial relief to those affected by Hurricane Katrina. “We can’t do that with protracted trench warfare,” he said.
“It really has gone well,” said Blake Teller, an attorney and elder for First Presbyterian Vicksburg. “We’re really pleased with how everyone worked together.”
There’s still one potential cloud on the horizon: The Synod of Living Waters is preparing to conduct a Special Administrative Review of the presbytery’s actions relating to church property ownership issues.
But for now, everyone’s happy.
“Hallelujah, praise the Lord, say what you want to say,” Robison said. “I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Patrick Jean is a staff writer for The Layman and The Layman Online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.