Superior Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk, Business Litigation Session
NEWTON PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH et al.
Garrett SMITH et al. Newton Covenant Church
Presbyterian Church (USA)
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ALLOWING PLAINTIFFSâ MOTION FOR
A PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION
Kenneth W. Salinger, Justice of the Superior Court
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
Plaintiffsâ 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.
have now moved for a preliminary injunction that would begin
to enforce Judge Sandersâ dispositive ruling by ordering
Defendants to vacate the churchâs 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.
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
Presbyteryâs decision must be respected and enforced.
majority of the NPCâs 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 NPCâs 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
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.
November 2017 the court (Sanders, J.) [34 Conn.L.Rptr. 552]
allowed Plaintiffsâ motion for partial summary judgment on
the claim for declaratory judgment. She explained that under
the First Amendment to the United States Constitution the
PCUSAâs 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."
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
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 NPCâs property on
behalf of the PCUSA. They have already proven that and won
summary judgment on the central issue in this case.
âargue that the Court should give little weight to Judge
Sandersâ 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 Sandersâ rulings in this case.
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 ...