Constitutional Law,  First Amendment,  Jurisdiction

Jurisdiction over Church Property Issues

When does a Southern Baptist church cease to be a Southern Baptist church?  I know that sounds like a set-up, but there’s no punchline here.  It’s a serious question, and it was at the heart of a dispute decided by the a Monterey County Superior Court.

In Central Coast Baptist Assn. v. First Baptist Church of Los Lomas, case no. H029958 (6th Dist. August 23, 2007), a reversionary clause in First Baptist’s constitution provided that its assets would pass to Central Coast, a voluntary association of Baptist churches, in the event of a “dissolution or winding up” of First Baptist or if it should “cease to be a Southern Baptist Church.”  Central Coast brought suit to enforce the reversionary clause, contending it was triggered by the attempted takeover of First Baptist by New Life Community Church and its Pastor.  After a bench trial ordered enforcement of the reversionary clause based on its findings that FIrst Baptist had “ceased to function as a Southern Baptist Church” and had “de facto dissolved.”

The court finds that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to inquire into the first condition for triggering the clause — whether First Baptist had ceased to be a Southern Baptist Church — because the question required resolution of disputes over church doctrine.  Such an inquiry violates the First Amendment.

However, the First Amendment does not bar inquiry into the existence of the second condition — dissolution or winding up — because the issue can be resolved by application of neutral legal principles to the governing church bylaws and constitution.  The court finds plenty of evidence — not the least of which were resolutions, properly adopted according to the procedures in the bylaws, to dissolve the church and turn the assets over to Central Coast — to support the trial court’s finding that First Baptist had “de facto dissolved.”