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Loophole blues

Religion | Presbyterians: Divided Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) prepares for splits and property disputes

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

Legal clouds are forming over the troubled 2.3-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after the PCUSA general assembly's decision in June to create a loophole that would allow churches and presbyteries to bypass the church constitution and ordain non-celibate gays. Many churches and even some presbyteries (regional units) are looking at exit options if the exemption survives challenges in church courts.

At issue is not only doctrine but also property: Will departing churches be able to keep it? Under PCUSA rules, church property is held in trust by the denomination, a stipulation under increasing scrutiny in secular courts.

Some PCUSA leaders are seeking to head off dissidents at the pass. Officials of the Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery went to each county courthouse where a PCUSA church is located and filed an "affidavit of ownership." The move in effect clouds property titles of churches. Its main target was evangelical Kirk of the Hills in Tulsa, the presbytery's largest and fastest-growing church. Kirk, led by Rev. Tom Gray, responded by amending its corporate documents to affirm the congregation's ownership and control of its property. Lawyers on both sides are boning up on church property law.

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One powerful and much feared tool in the PCUSA arsenal is the "administrative commission." When presbytery officials learn of dissension in a congregation, and if mediating efforts fail (a process that can drag on for months), they can form an administrative commission. It has the power to step in, remove the pastor and lay leaders, and take over the church's affairs (as happened at evangelical Hollywood Presbyterian Church (pictured) in Los Angeles last year). Officials in some presbyteries reportedly want to speed up the process, possibly forming such committees in advance to intervene at the first sign of division over a congregation's proposal to leave the denomination.

In Tulsa, a "New Wineskins" national gathering of conservative PCUSA leaders, representing 126 congregations, last month called on the PCUSA's top officials to declare a "moratorium" on actions to discipline clergy and churches for discussing the PCUSA controversy and possible options. They also called for a moratorium on actions to seize or encumber property.

Overall, however, conservative groups in the PCUSA, which represent a large segment of membership, including many of the denomination's largest churches, are not in agreement over how to address the crisis.

Bulletin Board

METHODISTS: The 500-member World Methodist Council, representing some 65 million Methodists worldwide, in a July 23 meeting in Seoul signed onto a joint declaration on justification adopted in 1999 by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. The document seeks to bring Catholics and Protestants into agreement on the role of faith and good works in salvation, the issue at the center of the dispute that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

IRS: As the current election season approaches, churches and nonprofits are on notice: They could lose their tax-exempt status if they engage in improper political campaigning. The IRS announced a new crackdown on violations with increased manpower and faster investigations. Violations increased in 2004, and since then the agency has investigated more than 200 organizations, issuing warning letters to 59 violators and stripping three of their nonprofit status (none was a church). More than 100 cases are pending, 40 of them churches.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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