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.
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.”
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).”
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