by Alejandra Ramirez
Where a property dispute arises between a local church and its “mother” church, the First Amendment limits the civil courts’ authority in finding a solution. Civil courts cannot play any role in determining ecclesiastical questions while resolving property disputes. Although courts in different states get to decide which approach they will take when resolving these disputes, in Florida, precedent has made it difficult for the courts to delve into the issue without running afoul of the First Amendment. The approach that Florida takes, namely “the compulsory deference to religious authority” approach, has the result of almost always leaving a local church without any adequate remedy at property law when it decides to separate from its mother church. Thus, this approach is incorrect and Florida courts should adopt the “neutral principles of law” method in solving church property disputes.
In Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), the Supreme Court was faced with determining whether civil courts may resolve the dispute on the basis of “neutral principles of law” without violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, or whether they must defer to the resolution of a hierarchical church’s authoritative tribunal. The Court held that the First Amendment does not require a State to adhere to a particular method of resolving church property disputes; rather, “a State may adopt any one of various approaches for settling church property disputes so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal matters.” Id. at 602.
The “neutral principles of law” approach “possesse[s] the advantages of being entirely secular in operation, relying solely on the objective, traditional, and familiar rules of trust and property law and . . . allow[s] flexibility in determining private rights and obligations in accordance with the parties’ expectations.” On the other hand, the “compulsory deference to religious authority” approach relies on non-secular determinations of the hierarchical configuration of the church denomination, where a court looks at the entity controlling the local church and determines it to be the titleholder of the property where the local church lies.
When courts are faced with having to adhere to the “compulsory deference to religious authority” method, like in Florida, the result is that they will not want to touch the church property dispute with a ten-foot pole. Instead, the “neutral principles of law” approach allows a court to provide a more equitable method of resolving the issue but still respect the autonomy of the religious hierarchical church involved in the dispute. That is why Florida courts should reconsider this issue and adopt the “neutral principles of law” method, which would allow the local churches to have a more adequate remedy at property law.