Court asked to declare Baton Rouge church, not PCUSA, owns its property
By Craig M. Kibler, The Layman Online, September 7, 2006
The trustees of First Presbyterian Church in Baton Rouge are asking a state district court to declare that it, and not the Presbyterian Church (USA), owns the congregation’s property.
Pending a court hearing on that issue, a state district judge granted the trustees a temporary restraining order that bars the Presbytery of South Louisiana from any action designed to take over the congregation’s property.
The temporary restraining order was signed by District Judge Timothy Kelley on Wednesday.
In their request for a declaratory judgment on the congregation’s property, the trustees are asking the court to rule that the congregation’s property “is held without trust for the use and benefit of the PCUSA or other national denomination, or any of its regional administrative units such as the Presbytery of South Louisiana” and that “neither the PCUSA nor any of its regional administrative units such as the Presbytery of South Louisiana has any right, title or interest in said property nor right to determine the ownership thereof.”
A hearing on a preliminary injunction to prevent the presbytery from any action regarding the congregation’s property is scheduled for Sept. 18 in the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.
In a letter to the congregation’s members posted on the church’s Web site, the Rev. Gerrit Dawson emphasized that “it is important to note what this action [by the trustees] does not do: it is not an act of disaffiliation with the PCUSA. It is not an ecclesiastical action. Rather, it is a legal action related to our property rights.”
A question and answer paper posted on the church’s Web site further emphasizes that “filing a lawsuit to seek judicial clarification is not an act of disaffiliation. Neither the staff, the session, nor the board of trustees of First Presbyterian Church have voted to recommend to the congregation that the local church disaffiliate from the PCUSA and reaffiliate with a different Presbyterian denomination. We continue to work and pray for the renewal of the PCUSA. First Presbyterian Church has not suspended its presbytery mission giving or local per capita payments to the [presbytery].”
Dawson, senior pastor of the 1,700-member Confessing Church congregation – the largest Presbyterian church in Louisiana – wrote that, “The session has been pursuing the development of a master plan for our church campus. It is clear that significant improvements are needed for our buildings.”
“The trustees recognized that any capital campaign to secure funding for such improvements would be drastically hampered by the question of title. This is particularly so in these days of denominational turmoil. As First Presbyterian finds itself in acute disagreement with recent denominational actions, the denomination’s claim that all property is held in trust for the PC(USA) has become even more problematic. Succinctly, we cannot hope to raise needed funds until the issue of ownership is settled.
“The way our legal system works,” Dawson wrote, “pursuing this clarity requires filing a lawsuit. In these days of fractured denominational life, it also requires requesting a temporary restraining order from punitive actions that might be taken against us as a result of seeking this judgment. It is the ardent hope of the trustees and session that this claim will be resolved quickly and amicably. We hope that the precautions we have taken will happily prove to have been unnecessary. Further, we believe that the facts and the law are so clearly in our favor that little argument needs to be, or can be, raised.”
An informational meeting about the action by the trustees has been scheduled Sept. 10 in the sanctuary for members of First Presbyterian Church.
Contacted on Thursday by The Layman Online, the Rev. Alan D. Cutter, general presbyter of the Presbytery of South Louisiana, said that the presbytery “has no comment at this time” on the legal filing by the congregation’s trustees.
The temporary restraining order, according to the filing, bars the presbytery from:
“(a) filing any documents in the mortgage and conveyance records of East Baton Rouge Parish the effect of which would be to place a cloud on the title of any property titled in the name of petitioner, or otherwise taking any action to claim ownership of local church property whether corporeal or incorporeal, movable or immovable, or real or personal, or a right to determine ownership of local church property, in the possession of, control of, or owned by First Presbyterian Church of the City of Baton Rouge; and
“(b) further restraining [the presbytery] and any agents, employees or other persons or entities acting on its behalf or in its stead, from asserting any rights to the property of First Presbyterian Church …, including but not limited to seeking to change the locks of FPCBR, initiating any disciplinary action against the ministers or members of FPCBR, appointing an administrative commission, or otherwise interfering in any way with the rights and responsibilities of the ministers or other employees of FPCBR, the governing body of FPCBR (the session), its congregation, or the governing body of its local church corporation, the First Presbyterian Church of the City of Baton Rouge (the board of trustees).”
In its question and answer paper, the church says, “It is hoped that, given the established state of Louisiana law and the well-documented local property facts, the [presbytery] will not take an adversarial position in this litigation. It may, however, come under pressure to do so.”
“The legal office in PCUSA headquarters has recently issued Advisory Opinion Note 19, warning presbyteries that if they do not seek to enforce the denomination’s claim to local property ownership and control then the synods may appoint administrative commissions to take control of presbyteries. Whether this can lawfully or effectively be done under the Book of Order is an unanswered question.
“Passage of the PUP report has created a moral crisis of conscience for many Presbyterian churches around the country, including our own, concerning continued identification with the PCUSA. It should candidly be acknowledged that we may yet need to discuss as a congregation the issue of our continued relationship with the PCUSA – but any such potential conversation would be for another day should the session or congregation so choose to address that issue. The present need for judicial clarification of property rights is heightened by the national controversy, is related to it, but is independently prompted by the need for the capital campaign.”
A legal memorandum in support of the temporary restraining order filed on behalf of the trustees states that, “All acquisitions of immoveable property held by First Presbyterian Church of the City of Baton Rouge, and all improvements thereon, movable and immovable, real and personal, were acquired and/or built exclusively as a result of financial contributions made by the members of First Presbyterian Church. No financial contributions were made by the [presbytery], the PCUS, or the PCUSA.”
“All deeds of immovable property held First Presbyterian Church of the City of Baton Rouge were originally titled in, and at all times have remained titled in, the corporation ‘First Presbyterian Church of the City of Baton Rouge’ only, and do not mention or refer to a national denomination such as the PCUS or PCUSA or any regional unit such as the PSL, nor contain any language creating or accepting any trust over said property in favor of a national denomination or regional unit such as the [presbytery].”
Another section of the legal papers filed in support of the action by the trustees says that dissatisfaction with the PCUSA’s actions, including the PUP report and the Trinity paper, “has reached a crescendo in many segments of the denomination.”
“For many,” the paper states, “the actions of the 217th General Assembly have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Numerous ‘renewal groups’ from the traditional or conservative wing within the PCUSA, representing hundreds of thousands of Presbyterians, are meeting in national conclaves scheduled between July 2006 and March 2007 to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly and consider a variety of responses, and have already called for a suspension of donations to the General Assembly of the PCUSA and the exploration of possible exit strategies from the denomination.”
The paper says that denominational officials have reacted to this growing dissent with “alarm. The threat of denominational confiscation of local church property is generally believed to be one of the few remaining things that is keeping numerous congregations from severing their ties with the denomination. Acting through the arm of its presbyteries, the PCUSA has thus tried to squelch the growing dissent and the escalating threat of denominational breakup by taking aggressive action against local congregations that are voicing dissent from PCUSA decisions.”
“In further illustration of the aggressive tactics being used by PCUSA presbyteries and their use of ‘administrative commissions’ as the mechanism or device to try and seize denominational ownership and control over local church property, the PCUSA has prepared legal strategy memoranda.” Those documents were published by The Layman Online.
“No attempt,” the paper says, “has been made by the PCUSA to dispute the authenticity of these memoranda, to retrieve them, or to prohibit their further circulation. These PCUSA memoranda:
a) “advocate use of ‘administrative commissions’ specifically for church property disputes, and in conjunction therewith advises how to remove the local pastor and/or governing board of the local church;
b) “advise how to freeze local church assets and physically seize property;
c) “recommend placing a cloud on local church property titles by filing affidavits in property records, irrespective of state law or the facts of any property in dispute;
d)”recommend mailing letters concerning contested property to any banks or other financial institutions that hold accounts for the local church, which letters ‘order’ that no assets be released to the local church;
e) “instruct presbyteries to investigate the religious background of any judge assigned to the case in order to exploit potential partiality or religious bias;
f) “recommend that presbyteries in their pleadings ‘use spiritual language’ in order to posture themselves in a positive light, and to negatively refer to the local church in the caption and in pleadings as ‘schismatic;’ and
g) “recommend to presbyteries, through the use of administrative commissions, to try and keep the local church in a defensive secular legal posture, counseling ‘Let the schismatics seek Caesar’s help.’
“It is in this unfortunate climate that First Presbyterian Church of the City of Baton Rouge has sought a judicial declaration of its property rights,” the paper says.