APPEAL by the plaintiffs, in an action, inter alia, for a declaratory judgment, from a judgment of the Supreme Court (John K. McGuirk, J.), entered December 6, 2006, in Orange County which, upon an order of the same court dated August 16, 2006, granting the cross motion of the defendants other than Robert W. Hoag for summary judgment and denying their motion for summary judgment, inter alia, declared that all church property, real and personal, held by the defendants, belongs to the defendants free and clear of any interest therein by the plaintiffs.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dickerson, J.
Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.
STEVEN W. FISHER, J.P., MARK C. DILLON, JOSEPH COVELLO & THOMAS A. DICKERSON, JJ.
The defendants are, among others, the trustees and members of the First Presbyterian Church and the Congregation of Ridgeberry, a/k/a Ridgebury Church and/or the Church at Ridgebury (hereinafter collectively Ridgebury Church), a local congregation, as well as Ridgebury Church itself. Ridgebury Church was affiliated with the plaintiff Presbytery of Hudson River of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (hereinafter Presbytery of Hudson River) and the national Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (hereinafter PCUSA) or their predecessors, from 1817 to early 2005. In 2005, Ridgebury Church seceded from PCUSA and attempted to take with it the real and personal property allegedly owned by it.
The plaintiffs Presbytery of Hudson River and Reverend Richard M. Spierling commenced the instant action, inter alia, for a declaratory judgment seeking to establish that Ridgebury Church held the subject property in trust for Presbytery of Hudson River and the PCUSA. The defendants moved for summary judgment, inter alia, declaring that Ridgebury Church owned the subject property. The plaintiffs cross-moved for summary judgment, seeking, inter alia, a judgment declaring that the property was subject to an express or implied trust.
History of Ridgebury Church
Ridgebury Church was organized in 1792 and incorporated in 1805. The certificate of incorporation stated that all property of the church was under the "charge" of the trustees of Ridgebury Church.
At a session meeting in 1817, Ridgebury Church affiliated itself with the Presbytery of Hudson, a predecessor of the Presbytery of Hudson River. Ridgebury Church passed the following two resolutions at the meeting: "1. Resolved that we adopt the Confession of Faith' and the Form of Government' of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.2. That we put ourselves under the care, and connect ourselves with the Presbytery of Hudson."
In 1958, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (which is not the same entity as the subsequently-formed PCUSA), of which the Presbytery of Hudson was a member, merged with the Presbyterian Church of North America to form the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (hereinafter UPCUSA), a predecessor of the PCUSA. In 1961, the Presbyteries of Hudson, North River, and Westchester merged to form the Presbytery of Hudson River.
The Subject Real Property
By five separate deeds dated between April 1, 1833, and June 16, 1964, Ridgebury Church and/or its trustees acquired title to five separate parcels of real property.
In 1979, Ridgebury Church submitted an application to the Presbytery of Hudson River requesting permission to sell certain property that had been devised to it in a will, as the property was not needed by Ridgebury Church. Later, Ridgebury Church sought permission from the Presbytery of Hudson River to reduce the minimum sale price of the property.
The United States Supreme Court Ruling
On July 2, 1979, the United States Supreme Court decided Jones v Wolf (443 US 595), holding, inter alia, "that a State is constitutionally entitled to adopt neutral principles of law as a means of adjudicating a church property dispute." In discussing the benefits of a "neutral principles of law" approach, the United States Supreme Court observed that such an approach "is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible enough to accommodate all forms of religious organization and polity. The method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges. It thereby promises to free civil courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and practice. Furthermore, the neutral-principles analysis shares the peculiar genius of private-law systems in general-flexibility in ordering private rights and obligations to reflect the intentions of the parties. Through appropriate reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify what is to happen to church property in the event of a particular contingency, or what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal controversy. In this manner, a religious organization can ensure that a dispute over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires of the members." (Id. at 603-604).
In response to the decision in Jones v Wolf, in 1980, the 192nd General Assembly of UPCUSA directed its clerk to send "Overture A" to the various presbyteries, including the Presbytery of Hudson River, to elicit their input as to whether the UPCUSA constitution should be amended to add a property trust clause. At a meeting on March 10, 1981, the Presbytery of Hudson River recommended that Overture A be approved so as to explicitly state in the UPCUSA constitution that all church property was held in trust for the denomination. The pastor of Ridgebury Church, Reverend William Wildeman, was in attendance at that meeting. At the 193rd General Assembly of UPCUSA, Overture A was adopted with a vote of 146 presbyteries in favor and 4 presbyteries opposed.
Formation of PCUSA and Ridgebury Church's Participation
In 1983, UPCUSA merged with the Presbyterian Church in the United States to form PCUSA. Ridgebury Church was affiliated with the newly-formed PCUSA. Ridgebury Church participated in the proceedings of the Presbytery of Hudson River as demonstrated by the Presbytery meeting attendance records. Ridgebury Church further abided by the PCUSA constitution as demonstrated, inter alia, by its actions in seeking the approval of the Presbytery of Hudson River for pastoral calls and contracts for a minister and submitting to the Presbytery of Hudson River a list of church officials and session records until January 2005.
The Book of Order and Church Property
The PCUSA constitution consists of two parts, the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. The Book of Confessions contains historical statements setting forth the beliefs of PCUSA. The Book of Order sets forth PCUSA's "Form of Government, Directory for Worship, and Rules of Discipline.*fn1
Contained within Chapter VIII, sections 2 and 3 of the Book of Order (G-8.0201 and G-8.0301), the property trust provisions state: "G-8.0201 Property Is Held in Trust. All property held by or for a particular church, a 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 particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).". . . "G-8.0301 Property Used Contrary to Constitution. Whenever property of, or held for, a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ceases to be used by that church as a particular church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in accordance with the Constitution, such property shall be held, used, applied, transferred, or sold as provided by the presbytery."
Additional provisions of the Book of Order discuss the control and possession of church property in general and the relationship between PCUSA and local churches such as Ridgebury Church to church property. For example, Chapter VIII, G-8.0501, entitled "Selling or Encumbering Church Property" indicates, "A particular church shall not sell, mortgage, or otherwise encumber any of its real property and it shall not acquire real property subject to an encumbrance or condition without the written permission of the presbytery transmitted through the session of the particular church." Additionally, Chapter VIII, G-8.0502 provides, "A particular church shall not lease its real property used for purposes of worship, or lease for more than five years any of its other real property, without the written permission of the presbytery transmitted through the session of the particular church."
Chapter VIII, G-8.0601, entitled "Property of Church in Schism" further indicates: "The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a particular church can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery (G-11.01031)[.] If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 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 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the particular church at the time of the schism." The Book of Order provides an exception under which a particular church could be exempt from the above provisions. Chapter VIII, G-8.0701, states: "The provisions of this chapter shall apply to all particular churches of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) except that any church which was not subject to a similar provision of the Constitution of the church of which it was a part, prior to the reunion of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), shall be excused from that provision of this chapter if the congregation shall, within a period of eight years following the establishment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) vote to be exempt from such provision in a regularly called meeting and shall thereafter notify the presbytery of which it is a constituent church of such vote. The particular church voting to be so exempt shall hold title to its property and exercise its privileges of incorporation and property ownership under the provisions of the Constitution to which it was subject immediately prior to the establishment of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This paragraph may not be amended."
Ridgebury Church's Secession
By undated correspondence, Ridgebury Church informed the Presbytery of Hudson River that it was disassociating itself from PCUSA for "reasons . . . too numerous to be listed." Ridgebury Church further stated that: "We leave with only that which is ours -- what we have bought and paid for without your help. We do not ask for an accounting or that you return to us what we have given in support of the denomination, but rather will rely on our LORD to supply all our needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus. We have determined that our property, real and personal, belongs to the First Presbyterian Church and Congregation in Ridgebury and will continue to be used for the work which Christ Jesus has appointed for us. All sources that we have reviewed indicates that all right, title and interest belongs to us -- the Scriptures, which are the only rule for faith and practice, the Confessions, our Certificate of Incorporation, and the Laws of the State of New York. We find no trust, express or implied. Such a trust would be contrary to the Scriptures and Confessions. We have reviewed ...