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Church of God Pentecostal Inc. v. Freewill Pentecostal Church of God Inc.

June 04, 1998

CHURCH OF GOD PENTECOSTAL, INC.
v.
FREEWILL PENTECOSTAL CHURCH OF GOD, INC.



Before Pittman, P.j., Banks And Waller, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Waller, Justice

DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/22/96 TRIAL JUDGE: HON. GLENN BARLOW COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: JACKSON COUNTY CHANCERY COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - REAL PROPERTY

DISPOSITION AFFIRMED - 6/4/98

MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED:

MANDATE ISSUED:

SUMMARY

¶1. Church of God Pentecostal, the Appellant, sued Freewill Pentecostal Church, the Appellee, for injunctive relief, accounting and to quiet title to certain property on which a church is situated. The minister of Freewill Pentecostal, Floyd Langer, was at some point, a Trustee, Overseer, and Bishop with the Church of God Pentecostal who was defrocked for reasons unclear in the record. However, Langer and the majority of his congregation continued to use the property for church services. Church of God Pentecostal, the putative parent denomination, argued that it was the rightful owner of the property and Langer and Freewill Pentecostal Church were no longer recognized as part of the national organization and, therefore, not entitled to possession, use, or enjoyment of the property. The chancellor found in favor of Freewill Pentecostal Church. Aggrieved by the chancellor's decision, Church of God Pentecostal assigns the following as error:

I. THE TRIAL COURT WAS MANIFESTLY IN ERROR AND ABUSED ITS DISCRETION BY CONFIRMING TITLE IN FAVOR OF FREEWILL PENTECOSTAL CHURCH, RATHER THAN IN FAVOR OF CHURCH OF GOD PENTECOSTAL.

II. THE TRIAL COURT COMMITTED REVERSIBLE ERROR IN REFUSING TO ADMIT INTO THE RECORD CERTAIN TESTIMONY UNDER RULE 406 OF THE MISSISSIPPI RULES OF EVIDENCE.

After careful review of the record and briefs in this matter, this Court holds that the chancellor did not abuse his discretion as to either assignment of error and, as such, affirms the chancellor's decision.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY *fn1

¶2. This action was initially filed by the Church of God Pentecostal, Inc., an Alabama corporation ("Pentecostal"), against Floyd Langer ("Langer"), James Armstrong and Betty Armstrong. James Armstrong, Betty Armstrong and Langer filed a Motion to Dismiss and, by order of the Chancery Court of Jackson County, were dismissed as party defendants. Pentecostal then filed a Motion to Amend the Complaint to join other defendants and by order of said chancery court, on July 6, 1995, Pentecostal was allowed to amend the complaint. The Amended Complaint named as defendants Langer, Freewill Pentecostal Church of God ("Freewill"), and Magnolia Federal Bank for Savings ("Magnolia"). On November 10, 1995, a Stipulation and Order was filed which recognized that Magnolia held a good and valid first lien on the realty which is the subject of the case sub judice. As such, Magnolia was not required to be an active participant in the trial. By order of April 8, 1996, Langer was dismissed as a party defendant. The remaining parties, Pentecostal and Freewill, carried forward with the instant litigation.

¶3. Pentecostal is a national church with its headquarters in Pritchard, Alabama. The Chief Apostle and head of Pentecostal is Bishop E.D. Davis ("Davis"). Pentecostal has been chartered in the state of Mississippi since 1993 and has had by-laws in effect since 1961. According to Davis, Pentecostal had by-laws in effect since the 40s when the denomination was first begun in Arkansas. However, when Pentecostal was incorporated in Alabama in 1961, the by-laws evidently came into print. Pentecostal claims to be the owner of certain church property located in Moss Point, Mississippi, by way of four deeds, which were attached to Pentecostal's complaint and made exhibits at trial. Pentecostal claims the realty was secured by the local congregation for Pentecostal and cites its by-laws as support. Freewill is a local church in Moss Point, Mississippi, and claims ownership of the subject realty, asserting that the deeds convey the realty to the trustees of the Moss Point Church for the use of its membership.

¶4. The first deed, which purports to convey Lot 16 in Block 1 of Gautier's First Addition to Moss Point, Mississippi Subdivision, was executed on July 28, 1959. The grantors, Henry Brown and Clara Brown "sold" the above described realty to CHURCH OF GOD PENTECOSTAL, GENERAL ASSEMBLY. Prior to July 28, 1958, several local people in Moss Point had been gathering for religious services. These individuals, according to the testimony of Mr. J.C. Mason, Mr. W.C. Johnson, and Mr. D.W. Millender, who were among those individuals, were not affiliated with any church or national organization. Testimony indicated that various preachers traveled to Moss Point to conduct street services. Manley Hughes testified as a witness for Pentecostal, that had, on occasion, held street services for the folks in Moss Point. Hughes did not pastor a church and stated that he had held services in other places like he did in Moss Point.

¶5. The above described property was purchased for $500 on July 29, 1958. The purchase price was earned by the selling of fish sandwiches, box dinners, and barbeques, all of which, according to testimony, were conducted by the local people in Moss Point. Pentecostal produced no evidence which would support its contention that it contributed to the purchase price for the above described property. Testimony showed that subsequent to the purchase of the property, the Moss Point folk gathered their labor and resources and constructed a building on the property in which their religious services were held. W.C. Johnson and D.W. Millender, called as witnesses for Pentecostal, testified that it was their understanding that the church and the property belonged to the local people in Moss Point.

¶6. In May, 1968, a second deed was executed which purported to convey the East 40' of Lots 14 and 15, Block 1, Gautier's First Addition to Moss Point. The grantors were Jim and Martha Brooks, and the grantee in this deed was the CHURCH OF GOD PENTECOSTAL OF MOSS POINT, MISSISSIPPI. Testimony at trial evinced that the funds for the purchase of this second piece of realty were again raised by the local people of Moss Point.

¶7. Subsequent to 1968, the members of the local Moss Point congregation were under the direction of James Armstrong. According to Armstrong's testimony, the local congregation constructed the church, which is located on Lot 16, Block 1, Gautier's First Addition. Testimony revealed that the building was constructed without any assistance, financial or otherwise, from Pentecostal.

¶8. In May of 1976, the people of the Moss Point congregation sought legal advice from the late Frank Hammonds, a local attorney, regarding the realty. On June 3, 1976, a deed was prepared which made every effort to comport with state laws regarding ownership of realty by unincorporated religious societies. This deed conveyed certain realty to J.C. MASON, O.B. SIMMS, AND JAMES ARMSTRONG AS TRUSTEES OF THE CHURCH OF GOD PENTECOSTAL OF MOSS POINT.

¶9. In 1986, the Moss Point congregation was extended a $5,000 loan by Pentecostal. The loan was paid off within 90 days. Pentecostal was not paid and did not ask for interest on the loan.

¶10. The members of Moss Point were able to acquire Lot 15, Block 1, Gautier's Addition, less the East 40' by way of Commissioner's deed on October, 26, 1993. This piece of realty was obtained by the Moss Point congregation's paying taxes on the property for many years and by clearing the lot of debris and garbage. Initially, the Church of God Pentecostal was given lien against the realty, which was later foreclosed upon judicially.

¶11. At some point, the date being unclear in the record, the local congregation executed a Deed of Trust in favor of Magnolia. They have made each and every payment as it has come due without any assistance from Pentecostal. Testimony at trial revealed that neither Pentecostal, nor its Chief Apostle, Davis, was aware of the Deed of Trust until "recently." The testimony of Davis, the Chief Apostle, was confused, as he is in his eighties and had a series of strokes prior to the trial which was held in April of 1996.

¶12. In March, 1994, Langer was defrocked by Pentecostal for what Pentecostal's complaint characterizes as misconduct and failure to act in accordance with the By-Laws of Pentecostal. Langer had come to Moss Point in 1953. He held the title of Bishop in Pentecostal and, at one point in time, was a trustee for Pentecostal. Additionally, he was an original incorporator of Pentecostal in 1961 and was Pentecostal's State Bishop of Mississippi. Prior to Langer's being defrocked by Pentecostal, the relationship between Pentecostal and the Moss Point congregation had been "a good one." Langer's being defrocked resulted in the Moss Point congregation's changing the locks on the building, which was characterized by Armstrong's testimony as being done for insurance purposes. Prior to Langer's being defrocked, the Moss Point church had a sign in front of the building which stated "Church of God Pentecostal, Inc., Langer, Bishop, E.D. Davis Bishop." Following this "falling out" the sign was changed to "Freewill Pentecostal Church of God" and Davis' name was deleted. Pentecostal's complaint alleges that, in November, 1994, the former trustees of the Church of God Pentecostal, Inc., and the subordinate/church located in Moss Point, Mississippi, attempted to convey the realty in question to the "newly" formed Freewill Pentecostal Church.

ΒΆ13. On June 13, 1996, the chancellor filed his Ruling and Opinion of the Court, with the Judgment being filed on July 22, 1996, confirming title in the subject realty in Freewill. The chancellor found that the 1958, root deed was ambiguous and, on the basis of the surrounding facts and circumstances, including the finding that the deed pre-dated Pentecostal's by-laws and that Pentecostal was not chartered in Mississippi until 1993, ruled that the intent of the parties was that the property was for the use of the local Moss Point congregation. The ...


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