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Presbytery of St. Andrew v. First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

April 12, 2018

PRESBYTERY OF ST. ANDREW, PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH U.S.A., INC.
v.
FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH PCUSA OF STARKVILLE, MISSISSIPPI

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 07/27/2016

          OKTIBBEHA COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. H. J. DAVIDSON, JR.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: RYAN K. FRENCH DOLTON W. McALPIN P. SCOTT PHILLIPS HAROLD H. MITCHELL, JR. LLOYD J. LUNCEFORD ANDREW FRANK TOMINELLO EUGENE R. GROVES.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: P. SCOTT PHILLIPS ANDREW FRANK TOMINELLO.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: RYAN K. FRENCH LLOYD J. LUNCEFORD DOLTON W. McALPIN.

          RANDOLPH, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         ¶1. First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkville, Mississippi, ("FPC") filed its complaint for declaratory judgment, a temporary restraining order, and a preliminary injunction in the Chancery Court of Oktibbeha County requesting legal protection and injunctive relief against the Presbytery of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church U.S.A., Inc. ("Presbytery"), after the Presbytery claimed FPC's property was held in trust for the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America ("PCUSA"). The chancery court granted summary judgment in favor of FPC, finding no evidence of any trust, express or implied. We affirm the finding of the chancery court.

         STATEMENT OF THE FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. FPC has occupied the same piece of land in central Starkville for more than 160 years, as it was founded in 1821 as a Congregational Church and mission to the Western Frontier. FPC holds title to six parcels of real property in Starkville - the most significant being the main church facility. FPC acquired the main church property in 1837, through a deed of conveyance to the "Trustees for the Presbyterian Church in the Town of Starkville." In 1924 FPC constructed its current sanctuary on the property.

         ¶3. FPC has transitioned into and out of multiple Presbyterian denominations, including the Old School Presbyterian Church; the Presbyterian Church, Confederate States of America; and the Presbyterian Church in the United States ("PCUS"). In 1983, the PCUS merged with another Presbyterian denomination to create the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America ("PCUSA"). FPC has been affiliated with the PCUSA since its inception.

         ¶4. FPC claimed that, although it was affiliated with several different Presbyterian denominations, it existed as an "independent, unincorporated religious association from its founding until 2003." On June 22, 2003, FPC's governing board (its session) passed a resolution declaring that "it is in the best interest of this association that it be forthwith incorporated as a nonprofit corporation." The resolution was approved by the congregation, and FPC has remained an incorporated entity (First Presbyterian Church PCUSA of Starkille, Mississippi) since that date.

         ¶5. Following its incorporation, FPC conveyed to the corporation its main property and facility in Starkville. The titleholder of record was then identified as FPC's corporate entity. Any property duly transferred to the corporation remains held by and titled in the name of First Presbyterian Church, Starkville, Mississippi.

         ¶6. Prior to 1982, no official documents of the PCUS included trust language. Moreover, in 1953, PCUS adopted an official position unambiguously disclaiming any trust interest in property and confirming that the beneficial interest in the property remained with the congregation. In 1982, PCUS amended its constitution to include the word "trust." Further, a reservation provision was included with the adoption of the trust clause, which allowed a local church not to be required to seek or obtain consent or approval of any other entity to buy, sell, or mortgage the church's property as a church of the PCUS.

         ¶7. After the PCUSA was formed, the Book of Order contained a trust clause, and local churches then were required to "obtain permission before selling, mortgaging, or otherwise encumbering the property of that particular church." Because this new trust clause was a departure from prior practice, the PCUSA's constitution allowed for a "property exception" which provided as follows:

The provisions of this chapter shall apply to all congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Except that any congregation 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 [PCUS] and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America [UPC] to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PC(USA)], shall be excused from the provision of this chapter if the congregation, 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.)[PC(USA)]. This paragraph may not be amended.

         ¶8. In response to this "opt out" clause and a session meeting with a representative of the presbytery, FPC voted to exempt itself by passing a resolution voting to opt out of the trust clause. The resolution read that FPC

does hereby vote to be exempt from the provisions of Chapter VIII of the Book of Order to which it was not subject prior to the Reunion which established PCUSA and will hold title to its property and exercise its privileges of incorporation under the Book of Church Order, PCUS (1982-1983 edition).

(Emphasis added.) FPC maintained this same position for the next few years, as evinced by session minutes from a June 1989 meeting.

Elder James Long brought it to the attention of the Session that he had talked with David Snellgrove at Presbytery regarding the property question and determined that in 1984 we passed a resolution at a Congregational Meeting to remain under the Old Book of Church Order. In the beginning of 1990 Presbytery will publish a list of churches who opted to remain under the Old Book of Church Order. Elder Long further stated at the time of the resolution that the Transition Commission met and acted on the resolution. Elder Long has requested a copy of the minutes of this Commission which our name appears. At the present time there are three situations which could exist under the Old Book of Church Order.
1. If there was a split in the congregation, the Presbytery would decide which half would get the property.
2. If our church is dissolved then Presbytery gets the property.
3. If we pull out of the Presbyterian Church, we get our property.
These are the three scenarios we are operating under. Rev. Parsons stated that he had re-submitted the request so as to cover this church in the eventuality that no action was taken earlier.

         ¶9. When incorporating in 2003, and subsequently adopting bylaws, FPC placed in those bylaws a reaffirmation of its intent to be exempt. In 2005 Session minutes, FPC reported that it had submitted the following to the chief officer of the Presbytery:

The Church By Laws were introduced and it was related that the bylaws will follow the Book of Church Order with the exception of retaining ownership of church property in the event the church dissolves. The ...

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