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Lawsuit Over Ownership of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem to be Heard Today

First Presbyterian Church-Bethlehem

(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). The Lehigh Presbytery and the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA, will appear in Northampton County Court on Friday (2/17/17) in hopes of settling a dispute over ownership that has led opposing congregants to hold separate Sunday services at 31-acre property on Center Street.

The hearing is over a lawsuit the church filed in June asking to be declared the sole owner of the property at 2344 Center St. and seeking an injunction to stop the Lehigh Presbytery from establishing new leadership as the denomination rules dictate. Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta will rule on both requests. 

The dispute arose over the church’s desire to leave the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the more conservative Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians — a denomination church leadership said better reflected members’ theological beliefs.

The Lehigh Presbytery, the regional authority for the Presbyterian Church (USA), informed the church that it could not move forward with the dismissal process because a poll showed it fell 9 points below the required support of 66 percent of the congregants.

First Presbyterian argues that the majority of members want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and that it should retain ownership because its members have donated the money needed to build and maintain the facilities.

The Presbytery argues the church is obliged to follow the bylaws of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and as a member of the denomination, it had placed the church property “in trust” with with the national entity. The Presbytery also insists the congregation’s June vote, where 76 percent of the 1,048 ballots cast were in favor of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA), was invalid since it violated the church’s own charter.

Jackson Eaton, counsel representing the Lehigh Presbytery, said the last several months have been filled with discovery and depositions. Both sides, he said, are prepared to make final arguments Friday to Baratta, though the chances of the judge issuing an immediate ruling are slim.

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