The Georgia Supreme Court last week decided two important church property cases. The rulings, handed down the same day, favor national bodies in disputes with local congregations and add nuance to the “neutral principles of law” doctrine, associated with the US Supreme Court’s holding in Jones v. Wolf, which allows judges to resolve intra-church disputes by interpreting relevant legal documents in terms of neutral civil law principles. The first case, Rector, Wardens, and Vestrymen of Christ Church, Savannah v. Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, applied the neutral principles doctrine to rule that an Episcopal parish in Savannah held property in trust for the parent body, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. As a consequence of this ruling, the parish, which has seceded from the national body and affiliated itself with an African diocese, must vacate the property and turn it over to the national church. In the second case, Presbytery of Greater Atlanta v. Timberridge Presbyterian Church, the court similarly concluded, again under the neutral principles doctrine, that a local Presbyterian congregation held its property in trust for the national body, the Presbyterian Church-USA.
Two points about these cases. First, they demonstrate that “hierarchical churches” – and both the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches qualify as such for purposes of American law – have learned, presumably in response to earlier court decisions, to amend and in some cases draw up church rules in a way that insures that local congregations hold property only in trust for the national body. Second, one typically thinks of the neutral principles doctrine in the context of “external” documents like deeds, contracts, and trust instruments. In these cases, however, the court applied the doctrine to “internal” church rules. There’s a danger in applying the doctrine in that context. Canon law may operate in ways that lawyers trained in the civil law system do not fully appreciate; from the perspective of the church, “neutral” civil law principles may not seem neutral at all. In these two cases, the court believed, that was not a problem, as the relevant canons did not implicate religious principles. In future cases, that may not be so clear.