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FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF SCHENECTADY v. UNITED

March 11, 1977.

FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF SCHENECTADY, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN the UNITED STATES of America, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: FOLEY

MEMORANDUM-DECISION and ORDER

JAMES T. FOLEY, District Judge.

 The plaintiff, First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, brings this action for declaratory and injunctive relief in which it seeks a judicial declaration of independence from the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (hereinafter UPCUSA) and injunctive relief restraining defendant from interfering with plaintiff's independent existence.

 Jurisdiction is purportedly premised upon 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, 2202 (Declaratory Judgment Act) and 1331(a) (federal question). It is settled law, however, that the Declaratory Judgment Act only "enlarged the range of remedies available in the federal courts;" it did not furnish the federal courts with an additional jurisdictional basis for entertaining litigation. Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671, 70 S. Ct. 876, 879, 94 L. Ed. 1194 (1950). Plaintiff, therefore, must necessarily rely upon the general federal question statute. 28 U.S.C. § 1331(a).

 Plaintiff's claim for declaratory and injunctive relief is based upon the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. Plaintiff also seeks declaratory relief based upon an alleged denial of rights guaranteed under the Contract clause. U.S.Constitution, Art. I, § 10.

 The gravamen of the complaint is that enforcement of N.Y. Religious Corporations Law § 17-b (McKinney's Supp.1976) contravenes the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the provisions of the N.Y. Religious Corporations Law § 24. Significantly, the defendant has not initiated any action authorized by § 17-b. In fact, the defendant has expressed in his papers and during argument on the order to show cause, that no action pursuant to § 17-b is contemplated.

 The matter came before me on February 22, 1977, pursuant to an order to show cause in which the plaintiff sought a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction. Following oral argument on the return day, I granted a limited TRO by oral direction from the Bench which permitted plaintiff to maintain the essential operations of the church (heat, electricity, fuel and minor repairs). I further directed that financial support of plaintiff's estimated forty field missionaries be continued.

 It is essential to the understanding and resolution of the preliminary injunction now before the court that the structure of the various religious bodies within UPCUSA be examined.

 UPCUSA is an association of Presbyterian churches governed by a hierarchical structure consisting of four distinct bodies known as judicatories. These tribunals of ecclesiastical government, in ascending order of their ruling authority are: (1) the Session and Congregation of the local church; (2) the Presbytery, composed of several churches in a geographical area; (3) the Synod, generally composed of all Presbyteries in a given State or region; and (4) the General Assembly, the highest governing body within the Presbyterian faith. See Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440, 442, 89 S. Ct. 601, 21 L. Ed. 2d 658 (1969); Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679, 727, 20 L. Ed. 666 (1872); Matter of Presbytery of Albany, 63 Misc.2d 791, 792, 312 N.Y.S.2d 505 (Sup.Ct.1970), aff'd, 35 A.D.2d 252, 315 N.Y.S.2d 428 (3rd Dept. 1970), aff'd, 28 N.Y.2d 772, 321 N.Y.S.2d 377, 269 N.E.2d 918 (1971), appeal dismissed, 404 U.S. 803, 92 S. Ct. 80, 30 L. Ed. 2d 35 (1971).

 The plaintiff is a religious corporation organized and incorporated in 1809 under the laws of the State of New York. The defendant is a religious corporation organized and incorporated in 1799 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Although diversity of citizenship is alleged to be one of the jurisdictional bases for the present suit, the parties' arguments in that regard are not significant for purposes of this decision. (See infra).

 At some indeterminate date, in or about 1790, the plaintiff with its church located in the City of Schenectady became affiliated with the Presbyterian faith as a constituent of the Presbytery of Albany, the judicatory with immediate governing and administrative authority over other Presbyterian churches within this region.

 On January 24, 1977, the Session and Congregation of the plaintiff, First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady, voted to sever relations with UPCUSA by a vote of 223 to 3 with 9 abstentions (see Plaintiff's Exhibit H). This drastic action was the final event in a dispute that arose from plaintiff's opposition to the UPCUSA's embracement of various political and social doctrines prominent in our modern society, which the large majority of plaintiff's Congregation deemed a radical departure from the fundamental doctrine and shared religious beliefs upon which the hierarchical Presbyterian faith was founded. In particular, it is alleged in the complaint that plaintiff's Congregation was not sympathetic towards the national Church's purported financial, moral and religious support of various Marxist and other radical social and political movements, Angela Davis, militant Indian movements and organizations entertaining atheistic beliefs.

 Thereafter, on February 1, 1977, the Presbytery of Albany, presumably in response to the plaintiff's action of severance, appointed an Administrative Commission "with the full power of the session" and directed the session of the First Presbyterian Church of Schenectady "to cease to act until otherwise directed by the Presbytery" (See Plaintiff's Exhibits B, C, and C-1). Additionally, in letters dated February 4, 1977, the Albany Presbytery, through its appointed Administrative Commission, dissolved the "pastoral relationship" which heretofore existed between plaintiff and Dr. Herbert S. Mekeel and Mr. Michael Alford (See Plaintiff's Exhibit D, F and G). By an earlier resolution of January 24, 1977, the Session and Congregation of the plaintiff voted that Dr. Mekeel and Mr. Alford be retained as Senior Minister and Associate Minister, respectively (See Plaintiff's Exhibit E).

 In each instance, the Presbytery of Albany acted on the authority conferred upon it by ecclesiastical law. See Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part II, Book of Order. It is with this factual background that plaintiff seeks the extraordinary relief of a preliminary injunction.

 Preliminary Injunction

 In order to obtain preliminary injunctive relief, the moving ...


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