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Newton Presbyterian Church v. Smith

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk, Business Litigation Session

November 17, 2017

Garrett SMITH et al.[1] Newton Covent Church Presbyterian Church (USA)

          Caption Date: November 16, 2017


          Janet L. Sanders, Justice

         This action arises from a dispute over the ownership of property of the Newton Presbyterian Church (" NPC"), a member of the national Presbyterian denomination known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the " PCUSA"). In January 2017, a breakaway faction within the NPC led by the individual defendants conducted a vote purporting to effect the departure of NPC from the Presbyterian Church in order to affiliate with a conservative evangelical organization called the Evangelical Covenant Church (" ECC"). Calling themselves the " Newton Covenant Church" (" NCC"), the defendants assumed control over NPC’s bank accounts and other property, including the church building located at 75 Vernon Street in Newton.

         The Presbytery of Boston is the governing body for all PCUSA member churches in the greater Boston area, including the NPC. Pursuant to PCUSA’s Constitution (which includes provisions to deal with schisms within congregations), the Presbytery has determined that the loyal Presbyterian members of the NPC are the " true church" and that the NCC members controlled by the breakaway faction are no longer members of the NPC, with no power to control NPC property. This lawsuit seeks enforcement of this determination together with damages. The matter is now before the Court on plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Count I seeking declaratory relief. This Court concludes that the motion must be Allowed, for following reasons.


         In support of their motion, plaintiffs primarily rely on documents, the authenticity of which is not in question. Those documents together with other undisputed facts reveal the following.[2]

         A. The PCUSA Hierarchical Structure

         The PCUSA is a Protestant Christian denomination consisting of congregations and a hierarchy of four governing councils that make up " one church." The four governing councils are- in ascending order- the session, the presbytery, the synod, and the General Assembly. A session, elected by a congregation, governs at the congregational level. A presbytery, made up of clergy and elders from congregations in a specific geographical area, governs the churches in a specific locality. A synod, made up of members of presbyteries within a region, governs the presbyteries in a multi-state region. The General Assembly governs the 16 regional synods at the national level. The acts of each council are subject to review by the next higher council.

         A central tenet of the denomination is " connectionalism, " with all member congregations and governing councils agreeing to conduct worship in accordance with the PCUSA Constitution (the Constitution).[3] The Constitution consists of the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order, which contains the church governance provisions. See Ex. A of Joint Appendix. The Constitution defines the jurisdiction of each council, with powers not mentioned expressly reserved to the presbyteries. A congregation as described in the Constitution " refers to a formally organized community chartered and recognized by a presbytery" and governed by the Constitution. Members of the congregation put themselves under the leadership of the session and the higher councils. A congregation may not hire a new minister or terminate that relationship without its presbytery’s approval.

         This hierarchical decision-making structure is, as stated in the Constitution, " applicable to all matters pertaining to property." As to ownership of that property, the Constitution contains a Trust Clause, which states:

All property held by or for a congregation, Presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a congregation or of a higher council retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefits of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

         Ex. A of Joint Appendix at G-4-0203. This Trust Clause was in direct response to the Supreme Court’s holding in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 603 (1979), discussed infra. The PCUSA’s predecessor organization, based primarily in the northern United States, added this clause in 1981. After it combined with the Presbyterian denomination based primarily in the southern United States, the General Assembly of the PCUSA approved the clause for inclusion in the PCUSA Constitution.

         In addition to this Trust Clause, the Constitution limits a congregation’s right to sell, encumber, or mortgage its real property without written permission of the presbytery. When a congregation is formally dissolved or becomes extinct, its property " shall be held, used, and applied for such uses, purposes, and trusts as the presbytery may direct, limit and appoint" or it may be " sold or dispose of as the presbytery may direct." In the event of a schism within the congregation, the Constitution sets forth a process for determining which of the factions is entitled to the property, stating that if there is no reconciliation or division into separate congregations, " the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the ...

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