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Presbytery v. Presbyterian Church of Stanley, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Kansas

February 17, 2017

Heartland Presbytery, Appellee/Cross-appellant,
v.
The Presbyterian Church of Stanley, Inc., Appellant/Cross-appellee.

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. The acquiescence doctrine establishes that parties who voluntarily accept the benefit or burden of a judgment lose their right to appeal.

         2. Parties waive their right to appeal if their actions clearly and unmistakably show an inconsistent course of conduct or an unconditional, voluntary, and absolute acquiescence. However, a waiver is not implied from measures that parties take to protect their rights following the entry of judgment.

         3. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 7 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights prohibit the government from interfering with a person's right to freely exercise his or her religious beliefs. In addition, the government is prohibited from compelling a person to support a particular religion or form of worship.

         4. The First Amendment allows hierarchical religious organizations or denominations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal governance and to create tribunals for adjudicating disputes that arise within the organization.

         5. Where a local congregation voluntarily affiliates with a hierarchical religious organization or denomination in accordance with the rules of that church body, church law governs the right of dominion, control, and disposal of church property.

         6. In cases involving disputes over the ownership or control of church property arising out of a schism, civil courts will take jurisdiction only to assure the regularity of business practices and to protect the right of private use and ownership of property.

         7. In cases involving a church property dispute arising out of a schism in a congregation affiliated with a hierarchical religious organization or denomination that has established internal tribunals for the resolution of internal disputes, Kansas courts apply the principle of hierarchical deference.

         8. Under the hierarchical deference approach, civil courts must defer to the decision of the highest tribunal of the hierarchical church body to which the issue has been presented.

         9. In applying the hierarchical deference approach in cases involving a property dispute arising out of a schism in a local congregation affiliated with a hierarchical denomination, Kansas courts should answer three questions from a secular perspective: (1) Was the congregation affiliated with a hierarchical church body or denomination prior to the schism? (2) Does the hierarchical church body or denomination have its own rules and procedures for the resolution of property disputes arising out of a schism within its congregations? and (3) Has there been a determination of the property dispute by the highest tribunal of the hierarchical church body or denomination to which the issue has been presented? If the answers to each of these questions is in the affirmative, then a civil court must accept the decision of the church tribunal as binding.

         10. Lower courts are duty bound to follow Kansas Supreme Court precedent, absent some indication the court is departing from its previous position.

         Appeal from Johnson District Court; Kevin P. Moriarty, judge. Affirmed.

          J. Brett Milbourn and R. Keith Johnston, of Walters Bender Strohbehn & Vaughan, P.C., of Kansas City, Missouri, for appellant/cross-appellee The Presbyterian Church of Stanley, Inc. (Dennis Hamblin, Steve Lemieux, and Kay Sprouse).

          Lee M. Smithyman, of Smithyman & Zakoura, Chartered, of Overland Park, for The Presbyterian Church of Stanley, Inc.

          Allan V. Hallquist and Christina M. Pyle, of Husch Blackwell LLP, of Kansas City, Missouri, for appellee/cross-appellant Heartland Presbytery.

          Before Standridge, P.J., Arnold-Burger and Bruns, JJ.

          BRUNS, J.

         This case involves a church property dispute arising out of a schism that developed between the members of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley, Inc. (PCOS). Since 1983, the PCOS has been affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is a hierarchical religious denomination. Unfortunately, a disagreement arose between the members of the congregation relating primarily to certain theological positions taken by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over the past several years. In 2014, a majority of the members present at a congregational meeting voted to have the PCOS leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-referred to as the "leaving" faction-while a minority of the members present at the meeting voted to continue its affiliation with the denomination-referred to as the "staying" faction.

         Heartland Presbytery-a governing arm of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)- brought this quiet title and declaratory judgment action in an attempt to preserve the congregation's property for the use and benefit of the staying faction, whose members desire for the PCOS to remain in fellowship with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In response, the leaving faction filed a counterclaim seeking similar relief on behalf of those who voted for the PCOS to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Although the district court found that the PCOS did not hold its property in trust for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), it deferred to a determination issued by a tribunal of Heartland Presbytery that those members who desire to continue the PCOS's affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are entitled to the disputed church property.

         Shortly after they filed a notice of appeal, the appellants-and others who desired to have the congregation disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-resigned as members of the PCOS and started a new congregation affiliated with a different denomination. On appeal, we find that the appellants did not acquiesce or waive their right to appeal by exercising their right to leave the congregation after the district court entered its judgment. Turning to the merits, we find that the district court correctly applied the principle of hierarchical deference-which has long been recognized in Kansas-in determining which of the two factions should have control of the property of the PCOS following the schism. Furthermore, we find that there is no reason for Kansas courts to retreat from the hierarchical deference approach in resolving church property disputes arising out of a schism. Thus, we affirm the district court's decision.

         Facts

         The PCOS congregation originally formed in 1979, at which time it was affiliated with two hierarchical church bodies-the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS). In 1983, the UPCUSA and the PCUS merged to form the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)- hereafter referred to as "PCUSA". Similar to the two denominations from which it was formed, the PCUSA is also a hierarchical church body. Consequently, the PCOS has been officially affiliated with the PCUSA for more than 33 years.

         The PCOS, throughout its history, has also been part of what is now known as Heartland Presbytery-the governing arm of the PCUSA that is composed of congregations in metropolitan Kansas City. Prior to 1983, Heartland Presbytery was named the Kansas City Union Presbytery because it served both the UPCUSA and the PCUS. In the late 1970s, the Kansas City Union Presbytery began efforts to plant a mission congregation in southern Johnson County that would eventually become the PCOS.

         On December 3, 1978, the Kansas City Union Presbytery began holding worship services in the basement of the Bank of Stanley. A part-time pastor supplied by the Presbytery led the services. The following month, the Presbytery approved a petition signed by 27 families requesting that a commission be established to officially organize the congregation. On May 5, 1979, the Presbytery purchased 5.8 acres of land located near 148th and Antioch in Johnson County as a building site for a new congregation. Finally, on August 10, 1979, the PCOS was officially incorporated in the State of Kansas.

         The Articles of Incorporation filed by the PCOS in 1979 stated:

"This corporation is organized for the purpose of supporting worship of Almighty God and instruction in the Christian religion, according to the Constitution of The United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States."
Likewise, the bylaws approved by the PCOS in 1979 provided:
"The by-laws of the Presbyterian Church of Stanley as a corporation shall always be subject to the Constitution and laws of the State of Kansas, and also to the Constitution of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States."

         In February 1983, Pastor Richard Ramsey and a lay member of the PCOS participated in a meeting of the Kansas City Union Presbytery. At the meeting, a Plan of Reunion, which provided for the merger of the UPCUSA and the PCUS, was unanimously approved. The Plan of Reunion also adopted the proposed Constitution of the PCUSA, which includes the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. The Book of Confessions sets forth the core doctrinal beliefs of the PCUSA, including the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, and a Brief Statement of Faith. The Book of Order sets forth the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, the Form of Government, the Directory for Worship, and the Rules of Discipline.

         The Book of Order provides that "the congregations of the [PCUSA] wherever they are, taken collectively, constitute one church, called the church." As a hierarchical denomination, officials of successive ranks govern the PCUSA. At the congregation level, voting members elect a council known as the Session, which is composed of lay elders and the pastor or pastors. In turn, the Presbytery governs the congregations in a particular geographic district. Next, a group of presbyteries in a region is called a Synod. Finally, the ultimate authority in the PCUSA rests with the General Assembly, which is made up of commissioners elected by the presbyteries.

         Among other things, the Book of Order states that

"[a] 'congregation' . . . refers to a formally organized community chartered and recognized by a presbytery as provided in this Constitution. Each congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall be governed by this Constitution. The members of the congregation put themselves under the leadership of the session and the higher councils (presbytery, synod, and General Assembly)." (Emphasis added.)

         In the Book of Order, the PCUSA directs its congregations to form a corporation where permitted to do so by civil law. Moreover, the Book of Order provides that a congregation organized as a corporation has the power "to receive, hold, encumber, manage, and transfer property, real or personal, for the congregation . . . all subject to the authority of the session and under the provisions of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." (Emphasis added.) The Book of Order further states that the property owned by a congregation "is a tool for the accomplishment of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world." (Emphasis added.)

         In addition, the Book of Order provides:

"All property held by or for a congregation . . . 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 congregation or of a higher council or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)." (Emphasis added.)

         Regarding the resolution of disputes between factions over "Property of Congregation in Schism, " the Book of Order states:

"The relationship to the [PCUSA] of a congregation can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery [citation omitted]. If there is a schism within the membership of a congregation and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation . . . the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the [PCUSA]. This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the congregation at the time of the schism." (Emphasis added.)

         For many years, the PCOS flourished as a congregation of the PCUSA and Heartland Presbytery. By 2014, the congregation had grown to more than 1, 000 members. Moreover, until the disputes developed that ultimately led to the schism, the PCOS, the PCUSA, and Heartland Presbytery worked closely together on such things as purchasing property, obtaining loans, and funding mission projects. The PCUSA and Heartland Presbytery also approved, ordained, and installed all of the pastors called to serve the PCOS. Over the years, pastors and lay members of the PCOS served on various committees and commissions of the Presbytery. In addition, pastors and lay members of the PCOS served as commissioners of the Synod of Mid-America and the General Assembly of the PCUSA.

         Prior to the schism, the PCOS borrowed money on several occasions and purchased additional land. Until 2013, Heartland Presbytery guaranteed all of the mortgage loans obtained by the PCOS. The maintenance of the property was paid for by the PCOS primarily using donations from its members. As required by the Book of Order, the PCOS requested and obtained the Presbytery's approval prior to acquiring or encumbering its real property. Moreover, the PCOS ...


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