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 for March 10, less than two weeks away.
In the meantime, a five-person team appointed by the HPPC session has had one voluntary meeting with officials from Grace Presbytery in an attempt to reach a resolution to the legal proceedings, with other discussions on the horizon.
Zack House, director of communications for Highland Park, indicated in an email to The Layman that the initial meeting took place Feb. 21 and that mediation will continue, though he did not give a time for such discussions to come to an end or for the next scheduled meeting between the parties.
“The mediation did not end on Friday and is still continuing,” House wrote in the email. “Because the confidential mediation process is still ongoing we cannot comment further at this time.”
Prior to the initial meeting, Highland Park held a time of prayer in the church sanctuary to “pray for wisdom and guidance for all parties involved in this process.”
In updates on its web site, Grace Presbytery has continued to “express its concerns for those who remain committed to the unity of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and to try to resolve the dispute amicably.”
Disaffiliating from the PCUSA
Highland Park’s membership voted Oct. 27, 2013, to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and officially became a member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians on Nov. 1, 2013.
The church voted 1,337-170 to leave the PCUSA and join ECO, a more conservative Presbyterian denomination now in its third year of existence. The vote to align with ECO was 1,335-161.
According to an update on the church web site the recommendation by HPPC elders to part ways with the PCUSA and Grace Presbytery was based on fundamental disagreements over core theological beliefs; the authority of Scripture and salvation through Jesus Christ alone; and the impact of PCUSA governance policy and practices on the life of Highland Park Presbyterian, particularly on the selection process for new pastors.
“By joining ECO, we are not walking away from our Presbyterian values; we are restoring them,” the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, interim senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian, said in a statement on the church’s web site. “With this vote to change, we will still be in the rich stream of Presbyterian theology, and we are ready to begin working with other churches in a growing denomination that is guided by the same beliefs and tenets that direct us.”
At the time of its disaffiliation, HPPC was the fourth largest church in the PCUSA with 4,896 members, according to the denomination’s comparative statistics for 2012.
The pending lawsuit
The lawsuit filed by Highland Park, organized in 1926, is asking the court to declare that the church itself owns and controls all of its property (valued at $30 million, according to court documents), not the PCUSA. Filed on Sept. 10, 2013, 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.
The PCUSA constitution indicates all church property is held in trust for the denomination, but 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.”
When she set the trial date on Oct. 14, Tobolowsky also 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 injunction prevents Grace Presbytery from taking any action that would disturb HPPC’s use of the property. The original order of protection was granted on Sept. 10.
Grace Presbytery tried to have the case heard in federal court, but it was remanded back to the district court level, where it was filed originally, on Oct. 7 by U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle.