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Newton Presbyterian Church v. Smith

Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk, Business Litigation Session

February 12, 2018

NEWTON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH et al.
v.
Garrett SMITH et al. Newton Covenant Church
v.
Presbyterian Church (USA)

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ALLOWING PLAINTIFFS’ MOTION FOR A PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION

          Kenneth W. Salinger, Justice of the Superior Court

         The parties to this lawsuit dispute who is entitled to use and control property belonging to the Newton Presbyterian Church ("NPC"), which is a member of the national Presbyterian denomination known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) (the "PCUSA"). Judge Sanders recently allowed Plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, ruling that they are entitled to enforce a ruling by the Presbytery of Boston that the remaining members of the NPC are entitled to use and control the disputed property, and that the break-away church members that now call themselves the Newton Covenant Church are not.

         Plaintiffs have now moved for a preliminary injunction that would begin to enforce Judge Sanders’ dispositive ruling by ordering Defendants to vacate the church’s real property, return all other property, and refrain from using the NPC property in a manner inconsistent with the prior determination of the Presbytery. For the reasons discussed below, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs are entitled to such relief. It will therefore ALLOW the motion and issue a preliminary injunction in the form requested by the Plaintiffs.

         Plaintiffs will remain free to let Defendants continue to worship in and make other use of the NPC building, at least for now. But that is for the Plaintiffs to decide. Defendants have no right to continue their use and occupation of the NPC property, now that Judge Sanders has determined that the Presbytery’s decision must be respected and enforced.

         1. Background

         A majority of the NPC’s members voted in January 2017 to break away from the PCUSA and affiliate instead with the Evangelical Covenant Church. The Presbytery of Boston is the governing body for all PCUSA member churches in this area. It determined that the loyal Presbyterian members of the NPC are the true church, and that the break-away majority were no longer members of the NPC and had no power to take "any action purporting to affect the ownership, possession, use or status of the church property" or to change NPC’s name. The break-away majority, led by the Defendants, ignored these directions, changed the sign outside the church building to read "Newton Covenant Church," and has occupied, kept possession, and been controlling use of all church property.

         The NPC and the Presbytery of Boston then brought this suit, seeking declaration "that the ecclesiastical determination of the Presbytery regarding the true NPC and who among its members is entitled to the use and control over the NPC property is to be recognized and enforced." Plaintiffs also seek permanent injunctive relief consistent with that declaratory judgment and damages for trespass and for conversion of property.

         In November 2017 the court (Sanders, J.) [34 Conn.L.Rptr. 552] allowed Plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment on the claim for declaratory judgment. She explained that under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution the PCUSA’s decision in this matter cannot be challenged in and must be enforced by civil courts. Two months later Defendants sought reconsideration of that decision, though for some reason they styled their request a motion to "vacate" the order granting partial summary judgment. Judge Sanders emphatically denied that motion, stating that she "did not regard the issue that I decided as a particularly close one."

         2. Standards

         "To obtain a preliminary injunction, the applicant must show a likelihood of success on the merits of the underlying claim; actual or threatened irreparable harm in the absence of injunction; and a lesser degree of irreparable harm to the opposing party from the imposition of an injunction." Wilson v. Commissioner of Transitional Assistance, 441 Mass. 846, 860 (2004). "The public interest may also be considered in a case between private parties where the applicable substantive law involves issues that concern public interest[s]." Bank of New England, N.A. v. Mortgage Corp. of New England, 30 Mass.App.Ct. 238, 246 (1991).

         3. Analysis

         This case is unusual because Plaintiffs have already prevailed on the merits. There is no longer a question of whether Plaintiffs are likely to succeed in proving that they are entitled to exercise full dominion over NPC’s property on behalf of the PCUSA. They have already proven that and won summary judgment on the central issue in this case.

         Defendants ‘argue that the Court should give little weight to Judge Sanders’ ruling because it is unlikely to be upheld on appeal. The Court is not convinced. To the contrary, it appears quite likely that Plaintiffs will prevail in any appeal from Judge Sanders’ rulings in this case.

         It is well established that in a case like this-where a hierarchical church maintains an internal system of tribunals for resolving disputes, and the highest ecclesiastical authority in the church has resolved an internal dispute over who has the authority to act on behalf of a local church and exercise control over its property-the First Amendment to the United States Constitution bars civil courts from intervening in the dispute other than to enforce the decision by the church hierarchy. See Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich,426 U.S. 696, 708-10, 724-25 ...


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