Oregon rejects the Dennis Canon

 

Oregon rejects the Dennis Canon

Author: 

George Conger

The Oregon Supreme Court has handed down a decision in a Presbyterian Church property dispute that effectively nullifies the Episcopal Church’s Dennis Canon in its jurisdiction.
In a 29 Nov 2012 decision in Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River v the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbytery of the Cascades the Oregon Supreme Court held that a denominational trust does not encumber parish property unless the parish takes an explicit action to place a trust or lien on the property on behalf of the denomination.
Last week’s rule had immediate ramifications for Episcopal Church property disputes as lawyers for Bishop Jack Iker and the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth filed a letter brief with the Texas Supreme Court reporting the Oregon Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of “neutral principles of law” in adjudication church property disputes.
Founded in 1901, Hope joined the Presbyterian Church of the USA in 1983 following the merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America.
Upon its formation the new denomination adopted a “trust clause” that stated: “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)."
Shortly thereafter the congregation also adopted an amendment to its bylaws stating it “holds all property as trustee for the Presbyterian Church (USA)."
However, citing the PCUSA’s move away from Biblical orthodoxy, the congregation voted to “realign its membership” and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  Litigation ensured leading to last week’s decision.
The Supreme Court ruled against the congregation finding that the amendment of the bylaws by the congregation placed a lien on the property in favor of the presbytery and national church.  However, it rejected the Presbyterian Church’s argument that the “trust clause” in its Book of Order controlled the disposition of church property disputes. 
Citing the U.S. Supreme Court case of Jones v. Watson the court held that “Civil courts are bound to recognize the existence of a trust in the denominational church’s favor, ‘provided it is embodied in some legally cognizable form’.”
The Oregon Supreme Court went on to say that “Whatever the exact contours of the phrase ‘legally cognizable,’ because there is no federal law governing the creation of trusts, that phrase must include at least the trust laws of the 50 states.” Denominational property trusts in Oregon must conform to Oregon law, which requires the “declaration by the owner of property” that is granting the trust. Unless a congregation takes an explicit action of granting a trust interest in its property to the denomination as required by Oregon trust law, as Hope Church did, the denomination has no claim on the property.
In his letter to the Texas Supreme Court, Fort Worth attorney Scott Brister outlined the ramifications of the Oregon ruling, and noted that now “38 states have accepted neutral principles of law, 4 have rejected it or equivocated and 7 states have not decided.”