Still no settlement: Highland Park, Grace Presbytery talks do not produce agreement

hppclogoIt appears Highland Park Presbyterian Church (HPPC) and Grace Presbytery may be headed to court after all.

The two sides were unable to reach a settlement in the lawsuit over the church’s property during a second round of mediation talks last week, paving the way for the parties to take the issue to court.

Last week’s mediation came on the heels of an initial meeting between a five-person team appointed by the HPPC session and officials from Grace Presbytery that took place Feb. 21. Both meetings were attempts to reach a resolution to the legal proceedings.

The date for the trial, Highland Presbyterian Church, Inc. vs. Grace Presbytery, Inc., was set for Oct. 20, 2014, at 9 a.m. by Judge Emily Tobolowsky, of the 298th Judicial District in Dallas County, Texas. The trial date originally was set for March 10, 2014, but was changed to October to allow more time for case preparation. It will take place in state district court.

gracelogoLimited details about the latest round of mediation from HPPC sent to congregation members late Friday, Feb. 28 indicated that the two sides had reached an impasse in their talks.

An update from the Communications Ministry at HPPC read, “At the conclusion of this past week’s mediation, Highland Park Presbyterian Church and Grace Presbytery were not able to reach a settlement in the lawsuit HPPC filed last fall over control of church property. Consequently, the lawsuit will continue, with an initial trial date scheduled later this year.”

HPPC Director of Communications Zack House indicated that there is no other statement from Highland Park at this time about the results of the mediation.

Grace General Presbyter Janet DeVries hinted at continued mediation in a comment sent to The Layman via email.

“Despite the best efforts of all parties and the mediator – a former federal judge – the dispute did not settle this past week,” DeVries wrote. “The parties will continue to work to resolve the dispute under the direction of the mediator in the next few weeks while the litigation proceeds.”


ECOAligning with ECO

Highland Park’s membership voted Oct. 27, 2013, to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA) following the late–September recommendation of church leadership. The church voted 1,337-170 to leave the PCUSA and join ECO, a more conservative Presbyterian denomination now in its third year of existence. The vote to align with ECO was 1,335-161.

HPPC officially became a member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians on Nov. 1, 2013.

“HPPC continues to follow God’s call with the new denomination ECO,” the latest mediation update from the church read. “After four months as enthusiastic members of ECO, there is great anticipation for this new chapter in HPPC’s life. The church has already begun working with ECO on many new initiatives and partnerships that fit well with our mission and ministry locally and globally.”

HPPC was the fourth largest church in the PCUSA with 4,896 members, according to the denomination’s comparative statistics for 2012, when it disaffiliated.


Heading to court

The lawsuit filed by Highland Park, organized in 1926, is asking the court to declare that the church owns and controls all of its property (valued at $30 million, according to court documents), not the PCUSA or Grace Presbytery.

Filed on Sept. 10, 2013, in Dallas County District Court, the court documents cite the recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court declaring that Texas courts must follow neutral principles of law when deciding church property cases.

The PCUSA constitution indicates all church property is held in trust for the denomination, but Highland Park disputes the PCUSA’s trust clause, stating in court documents that, “At no time in its history have the articles of incorporation for Highland Park Presbyterian Church contained any provision creating or establishing any trust, express or implied, in favor of a national denomination upon the property held by or for the local church of its civil corporation.”

The case will be heard in district court rather than federal court. Grace Presbytery tried to have the case heard in federal court, but it was remanded back to the district court level, where it was filed originally, on Oct. 7, 2013, by U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle.

Highland Park obtained a temporary restraining order in September 2013 to safeguard the congregation’s ownership rights to the church property during litigation. When she set the trial date back in October 2013, Tobolowsky also granted the church a temporary injunction “identical to the temporary restraining order, specifying that the protections will last through the course of the lawsuit.”

The injunction prevents Grace Presbytery from taking any action that would disturb HPPC’s use of the property.

Officials with Grace Presbytery have indicated that Highland Park’s leadership has not followed the proper process to be dismissed from the denomination.

“While Highland Park’s session can recommend dismissal to another Reformed body, Highland Park’s lawsuit circumvents and interferes with the established ecclesiastical dismissal process,” DeVries said in an interview with The Christian Post. “The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Just and Gracious Dismissal Policy of Grace Presbytery provide for a process which enables the congregation to hear and discuss both the PCUSA and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).”


Comments 9

  • Some insight, please. The Christian Church has held Councils to counter heresy and heretics. Individuals have been declared heretics. Now the PC(USA) has become the bastions for heresy and heretical actions. So, why are churches paying money to the proponents of heresy in order to leave? Why are those who adhere to the Reformed Faith leaving the PC(USA) in the hands of those who have perverted themselves and the Christian Faith – and paying them so that we can go elsewhere?
    Is it not time for heresy hearings? Heresy trials? Is it not time to form a ‘class action suit’ and remove the individuals, seminary staff members and those serving in PC(USA) positions – that are using our monies to further betray the foundation of the PC(USA)? Surely there are ways to legally prove that leaders within the PC(USA) have departed from the Faith once and for all delivered. They need to pay the price for their apostasy and for perverting the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are held in captivity and forced to pay a ransom. They need to be put out or forced out of office!
    Surely we can, at minimum, withhold our support from these apostates until they are penniless and we again have a denomination faithful to the Word of God, the Bible and leaders who will commit themselves to being faithful.
    Some legal advice, please.

    • The PCUSA long ago lost its political will to prosecute heresy among its minister members. In 1910, the PCUSA General Assembly issued a Doctrinal Deliverance in response to the growing epidemic of Theological Liberalism, which declared that there were five “essential doctrine(s) of the Word of God and our Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession of Faith together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms)”, and which directed the Presbyteries to “always take care not to admit any candidate for the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function, unless he declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of the Confession”. These “essential and necessary” doctrines were:
      • The Plenary Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture
      • The Virgin Birth of Christ
      • The Substitutionary Atonement
      • The Historical and Bodily Resurrection of Christ from the Dead
      • The Reality of Miracles

      In 1923, New York Presbytery approved the ordination of two graduates of Union Seminary in New York who rejected the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The two were brought up on heresy charges before the 1924 General Assembly. That same year, 1274 Presbyterian clergymen signed an Affirmation declaring that, although they held “most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines (i.e., the five doctrines specified in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910), … we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.” Faced with a potential church split, the 1924 referred the heresy trial of these two men to the Synod of New York for “appropriate action”. The heresy trial of the same two men came up the following year before the 1925 General Assembly deferred the matter back to New York Presbytery, which had originally approved the two for ordination, and nothing further was done.

      Moreover, the 1925 General Assembly appointed a Special Commission to resolve matters and keep those who had signed the aforementioned Affirmation (as well as those who agreed with their position but had not signed the Affirmation) from splitting the denomination. When the Special Commission’s final report was accepted by the 1927 General Assembly, and the five “essential and necessary” doctrines were rendered null and void.

      Today, PCUSA officers are required to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do,” but the PCUSA declines to define exactly what these “essential tenets” are. Consequently, there is no foundation in the PCUSA upon which to bring up heresy charges, and no court in recent PCUSA history has seriously entertained any attempt to do so. As in the days of the Judges, “Everyone (does) what (is) right in his (or her) own eyes.” (Judg. 21.25)

      • Thanks, Loren for such a fact-filled response to my question/ramblings. I will devote time to looking at each part of your response. I appreciate your effort and response.
        Your reference to Judges 21:65 reminded my of the response of my African-American brother in ministry. He added to that verse: Which was completely wrong!

  • I was a member of Grace Presbytery since its inception or change from Trinity Presbytery. I moved to PA and now belong to the Presbytery of Philadelphia. I retired in Grace, so I have
    affection for the old presbytery.
    However, it makes me sad that many of the presbytery dismissal policies are a vehicle to
    get money to sustain the operations for a few more years. That is how I see it. I am not sure
    the Lord is pleased with this because we are told in the NT not to go to the court house.
    I am also sure that congregations have given to presbytery operations, synod, and GA more than the congregations have received in benefits and support.
    In some sense, it appears the Old Structures are inflexible and unable to respond to the
    changes that congregations demand. Something rather Medevial about these proceedings
    and likely to get the same results: A Reformation.

  • If the Presbytery really wants to take this to court, they’re going to lose. The Texas Supreme Court has ruled in an existing court case that neutral principles of law must be followed in such disputes. You cannot impose a ‘trust’ without consent of both parties, and an “implied” consent does not m.eet the requirements of the law.

    • RC, I agree, which is why I’m pretty sure Grace does not want this to go to trial. They’re hoping HPPC will make a financial settlement to avoid dragging out the legal proceedings. This would save face for Grace, and leave it with continued ability to keep its other congregations in line with the threat of the trust clause. That’s why I feel HPPC should accept the legal cost of going through with the trial, as a good work that will benefit its former sister congregations in Grace Presbytery by crushing the trust clause in Texas.

  • Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery has been taking blood money for years.

  • Presbytery of the Peaks is also doing this to flagship churches in their Presbytery. Extortion at it’s finest.

  • Ms. DeVries and the others at Grace Presbytery are doing God’s work in using money from the collection plates of Grace’s congregations to pay lawyers in an attempt to extract a large sum of money from a congregation that left PCUSA because 9/10 of its members could no longer abide the ideology and policies favored by Ms. DeVries.

    Right? She’s doing God’s work, right?

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