A state appeals court heard a Presbyterian church property dispute from Washington County on Wednesday that could impact other Pennsylvania churches that have split.
In 2007, members of the Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church voted 207-26 to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The congregation had earlier dropped out of a Washington Presbytery process to decide whether and how the property could be taken into a different denomination.
Washington Presbytery later declared that a minority loyal to the Presbyterian Church (USA) was the “true church,” with a right to the property. In 2009, however, Washington Common Pleas Judge Paul Pozonsky ruled that the majority owned the property because the deed, charter and other legal papers had no trust clause giving ownership to the denomination.
In church property disputes, Pennsylvania courts use “neutral principles,” meaning that ownership is determined by civil documents rather than by theological tradition.