Presbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church

PETITIONER: Presbyterian Church in United States
RESPONDENT: Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church
LOCATION: Souther District Court of Georgia

DOCKET NO.: 71
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)
LOWER COURT:

CITATION: 393 US 440 (1969)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1968 / Dec 10, 1968
DECIDED: Jan 27, 1969

ADVOCATES:
Charles L. Gowen - For the Petitioner
Owen H. Page - For the Respondent

Facts of the case

The general Presbyterian Church (general church), and two local churches, Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church (Hull Church) and Eastern Heights Presbyterian Church, were in dispute over the control of properties used by the local churches in Savannah, Georgia. The local churches withdrew from the general church due to these conflicting views. In response, the general church took over the local churches’ property. Each of the local churches sued the general church for trespass on the disputed property. The general church argued that the civil courts don't have the power to determine whether the general church had departed from its faith and practice. The district court disagreed and concluded that, under Georgia law, the implied trust of local church property for the benefit of the general church was terminated because of the general church’s substantial departure from its doctrines. The Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed the judgment, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision by agreeing with the general church that the First Amendment prevents civil courts from ruling on church doctrine issues. 

Question

Do the civil courts have the ability to determine title to church property on the basis of the civil court’s interpretation of the church doctrine?

Media for Presbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 10, 1968 in Presbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 1968 in Presbyterian Church in United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church

Earl Warren:

No. 71, Presbyterian Church in the United States, et. al., petitioners vs. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, et. al.

Mr. Gowen.

Charles L. Gowen:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the court.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States, the petitioner, is a hierarchical church, sometimes called the Southern Presbyterian Church.

The first step in the church government is the “Session”, composed of ruling elders and the pastor of the local church.

The next is the “Presbyterian”, which is composed of representatives of local churches in a geographical area and also the ministers from those churches.

Under the form of government of this church, a pastor of a local church is not a member of the local church but is a member of the Presbyterian.

The next is the “Senate”, which generally but not always corresponds to state lines and which is composed of representatives of the local churches together with the ministers in the included Presbyterians.

Next is the “General Assembly”, which is composed of representatives of Presbyterians, divided equally between ministers and laymen.

This also constitutes the courts of each government church; the General Assembly being the highest court in the denomination.

In April of 1966, the congregation of two local churches of this church voted to savor all connections will and remove themselves from all ecclesiastical control, jurisdiction and oversight of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and so notified the Presbytery of Savannah.

The Savannah Presbytery then appointed an Administrative Commission under the law of the church with full authority to act on the premises and with special instructions to visit the ruling elders of each church - the ruling elders constituting the session, which as I have said is the governing body of the local church.

After each elder in each church saved one, reaffirmed the action and after the pastor of each church had reaffirmed his renunciation of the Presbyterian church in the United States, the Commission, by a resolution, that’s the Administrative Commission of the Presbyterian, by resolution declared the pulpit of these church to be vacant because administers had savored all the connections with the church and assume the regional jurisdiction over these local churches in accordance with the Book of Church Order which is part of the record in this case and declared that Commission’s intention to secure ministers to provided regular services of worship in the sanctuaries of each of the two local churches for those members who wish to continue their membership and communion with the general church.

Byron R. White:

If you are going to point specifically where in the church order there’s any reference to the use of property or a right of the central to the real property of a local church?

Charles L. Gowen:

We will cover that but the decision of the Georgia Supreme Court we think --

Byron R. White:

I understand that.

They may not have gone on the space.

I just like to know where, on what basis within the church does the central church or general church have any claim to local -- on the local church?

Charles L. Gowen:

On the basis of the implied trust.

Byron R. White:

You mean you have to turn the civil law for the implied trust?

Charles L. Gowen:

No, sir, but --

Byron R. White:

The judge made law for the implied trust?

Charles L. Gowen:

No, sir.

When you join the church, the Book of Church Order contains the procedure under which the local churches are maintained.

The Book of Church Order says --

Byron R. White:

Did it say anything about property?

Charles L. Gowen:

I don’t think it says anything about the property but it does say who has the use and the right to occupy the church when the church ceases to function as a church in the denomination.

Byron R. White:

Now where is that?

Charles L. Gowen:

That’s in Book of Church Order, Section 16-7(a) or it may 7(d).

Byron R. White:

Where do you find that in the record?