(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). After splintering last summer, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem is seeking judgment of who owns the massive church property in a bench trial that could eventually help clarify Pennsylvania’s murky church property law.
Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta presided over a full courtroom Monday, packed with congregants from both sides of the theological divide as well as current and former leaders of the storied church, founded in 1877.
Forrest Norman, counsel representing the church leadership that disaffiliated from the Presbyterian Church (USA), said the case is, at its heart, a simple one.
“Our case is really about property,” Norman said in his opening remarks. “This is a property rights case.
A large majority of congregants voted at a special First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem meeting in June to leave the mainline denomination for the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, citing theological differences as the Presbyterian Church (USA) increasingly embraced gay rights of clergy and marriage. The church had been considering leaving for more than five years and was in danger of losing a large number of congregants if it didn’t make the switch, according to testimony.
Meanwhile, the Lehigh Presbytery, a regional governing body for the church, and a portion of congregants resisted the departure. That set the stage for the dispute over ownership of the 31.5-acre campus at 2344 Center St. in Bethlehem, worth millions of dollars. Both factions worship under the same roof during separate services.
At debate is whether the church property has been held in trust to the Lehigh Presbytery, as ordered in the governing document for the Presbyterian Church (USA) known as the Book of Order. The leaders who disaffiliated from the national denomination argue that they never agreed to place the property in trust. The court, they argue, should only examine the church deed and charter when examining the question of ownership — documents where mention of a trust is conspicuously absent.
“It never quite made sense to me that another entity could declare our property to be held in trust for them,” said James Omdahl, a church trustee called first to testify.