Jones v. Wolf

PETITIONER: R. W. Jones, Sr., et al.
RESPONDENT: Charles T. Wolf et al.
LOCATION: Vineville Presbyterian Church

DOCKET NO.: 78-91
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Georgia

CITATION: 443 US 595 (1979)
ARGUED: Jan 16, 1979
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1979
GRANTED: Oct 10, 1978

ADVOCATES:
E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. - for petitioners
Frank C. Jones - for respondents

Facts of the case

Vineville Presbyterian Church was organized in 1904 and first incorporated in 1939. Its property was purchased using funds contributed entirely by local church members. The year it was organized, Vineville was established as a member of the Augusta-Macon Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (“PCUS”). Under the PCUS’s hierarchical structure, the actions of the government of a local church were subject to the review and control of the higher church courts: the Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly. The powers and duties of each court were set forth in the constitution of the PCUS, the Book of Church Order.

On May 27, 1973, 164 members of Vineville’s congregation voted to separate from the PCUS and join the Presbyterian Church in America; ninety-four members opposed the resolution. The Augusta-Macon Presbytery appointed a commission to investigate and resolve the dispute. This commission eventually ruled that the minority faction at Vineville was the true congregation of Vineville, withdrawing all authority from the majority faction, which took no part in the commission’s inquiry.

The minority faction brought a class action in state court, seeking declaratory and injunctive orders establishing their right to exclusive possession and use of Vineville’s property. The trial court, relying on Georgia’s “neutral principles of law” approach to church property disputes, found for the majority faction. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the ruling, holding that the trial court correctly applied Georgia law and rejecting the minority faction’s claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Question

Did the First Amendment require the district court to defer to the Augusta-Macon Presbytery commission’s ruling that a minority faction constituted the “true congregation” of Vineville Presbyterian Church?

Media for Jones v. Wolf

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 16, 1979 in Jones v. Wolf

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in Jones against Wolf.

Mr. Prettyman, you may proceed whenever you're ready.

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr.:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

I'm Barrett Prettyman, Jr. and I represent the petitioners in this case who in turn represent a class claiming to be the true congregation of the Vineville Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia.

Since 1904, that church has been a member of the Augusta-Macon Presbytery which in turn is a part of the Presbyterian Church in the United States which I will call PCUS in shorthand for the purposes of this argument.

As this Court noted in the Hull case and as the trial court held in this case, PCUS is a hierarchal church.

It has an ascending order of judicatories beginning with the local church session made up of the minister and its elders then proceeding up to the Presbytery which includes ministers and elders from a number of churches and then the Synod which includes a number of Presbyteries and finally, the General Assembly, the single group that is the highest court and represents all the churches under PCUS.

Each of these bodies is called a Church Court and each has the power under the PCUS constitution to review and overrule the actions of the court below it.

Moreover, each can appoint a commission to act in its place --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

May I ask Mr. Prettyman.

That means that the session is the court of first instance, is that it?

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr.:

I'm sorry.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The session is the court of first instance?

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr.:

Yes, sir.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

And that's composed of?

E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr.:

That is composed of the minister and elected elders of the local church.

Now, each of these courts can appoint a commission to act in its place and to report to it and every member, this is important, every member who joins PCUS in any of its churches takes a vow or an oath to be bound by the PCUS structure and constitution which is principally embodied in the Book of Georgia -- Church Order which is part of the record in this case.

Back in May 1973, certain members voted at a meeting, 164 -- oh, I'm sorry, 165 to 94 to adopt the resolution separating the Vineville Presbyterian Church from the Augusta-Macon Presbytery and from PCUS and to be an independent church.

The respondents here represent a class made up of that majority vote and my clients, the petitioners represent a class of the minority in that vote.

The majority struck the minority members' names from the roles and refused them to use -- to let them use the church property as a unit of PCUS.

And the majority subsequently joined the Presbyterian Church in America which is an entirely separate group totally unrelated to PCUS.

The majority also notified the presbytery of PCUS of their action and the minister wrote to the presbytery relinquishing his membership in the denomination.

I might add here that all of these facts had been stipulated.

The presbytery appointed a commission as it had a right to do under its constitution to investigate this situation which it did.

And the commission made three basic findings.

First, it found and declared that those members of the Vineville Presbyterian Church who held to their original vows and did not renounce their affiliation with PCUS were the true congregation of the church.

Secondly, they withdrew all authority from the minister and officers who agreed to the statement of withdrawal.

And finally, it found that the church session of the Vineville Presbyterian Church was unable to act.

It did that because that gave the power to not only make these findings but made it certain further suggestions to the Presbyterian.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Mr. Prettyman, assume that the resolution had been adopted unanimously, the May resolution, what is your view as to what the status of the ownership of the church would have been then?