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Musings On The News Report Of The First Presbyterian Church Of Bethlehem Property Arguments

(By Steve Salyards, The GA Junkie). Once again, in the “where angels fear to tread” territory, I wanted to muse a bit and post some brief comments on the arguments in the Northampton County Court (PA) recently between the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Lehigh Presbytery, and the minority “stay” group.

The article from The Morning Call of Allentown is titledCourt arguments reveal deep divide in First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.”

I am going to cast this in the light of the most recent case law for Presbyterian disputes over property in Pennsylvania right now, the 2014 Peters Creek decision.

And with those two inputs, maybe there is something appropriate to Mark Twain’s quip “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

Now, it is worth noting that these were oral arguments to decide if this case needs to go to a full trial. The article quotes Judge Baratta as saying:

“I really would hate to render a decision at some point that’s going to hurt members of the community in matters of faith,” Baratta said. “If you’re getting close to a resolution I will do whatever I can to work with you, to push you over that line. But please, consider, 10 years from now when you look back on this, it may not be as difficult an issue as it is today.”

The argument from the majority of FPC Bethlehem is that the deeds do not mention the denomination and the church never explicitly accepted the PCUSA Trust Clause. The judge responded “So you’re saying they didn’t really mean all of the Book of Order … only the parts they liked?” The majority’s lawyer responded that was an ecclesiastical question and not the scope of the civil courts. The judge replied that it could be looked at under neutral principles.

I must presume the judge has done his homework on this one. Part of the Peters Creek decision was laying out the boundaries of the neutral principles and the trust law related to the church trust clause. Under that decision it seems clear to me (reference Twain quote above) this court can deal with the property issue. Also under the Peters Creek decision a formal acceptance of the trust is not necessary but actions that would acknowledge PCUSA ties and thus by inclusion the trust – like saying you are a PCUSA church in your bylaws and charter and accepting the current Book of Order – are enough to demonstrate implicit acceptance of the trust clause. The decision quotes an earlier Presbyterian property decision that says (p. 19)

“In order for a court to find that a trust has been created, there must exist in the record clear and unambiguous language or conduct evidencing the intent to create a trust. No particular form of words or conduct is required to manifest the intention to create a trust. Such manifestation of intention may be written or spoken words or conduct indicating that settlor intended to create a trust.”

While a final decision in this matter would involve the close examination and history of the church’s bylaws, charter and property documents, the exchange between the judge and the lawyer is telling and may suggest that FPCB has a bit of an uphill battle on this.

But the initial questioning of the Presbytery’s lawyer was no less problematic.

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First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Takes Court Action in Bid to Break from PCUSA: UPDATE posted 6/13/16

UPDATE:

A message from the church session has been posted on the First Presbyterian Church, Bethlehem web site, explaining why it asked the “Trustees to seek definitive answer to the question of the ownership of the Church’s property. Accordingly, the Trustees filed suit in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas to simply seek confirmation from the civil courts of Pennsylvania that they do, indeed, hold title to all property of the Church as mandated by the corporate bylaws of the Church.” The message read, in part:

” … we expect that when the Presbytery steps into our Bethlehem church they acknowledge that they are on holy ground and are obligated to operate with the highest levels of integrity, candor and competence.

Sadly, the Lehigh Presbytery has not operated in this manner. The entire Presbytery process has been sloppy and arbitrary culminating with the straw poll. Straw poll ballots were sent to deceased members and not sent to some active members. Even more troubling, the individually assigned voting codes were inadvertently sent by the vendor to the Presbytery Engagement Team at the beginning of the voting process. The Presbytery did not disclose or admit this fact and denied it when asked directly. The Session is unanimous in its concern that the recent straw poll results are suspect. This concern is based on the May 2015 survey results, focus group results, voting results at our congregational meeting, the PET’s own admission of the majority of our congregation’s convictions to move to ECO, and the PET’s inappropriate access to the survey codes.

This compromised straw poll (which was not even a required part of the Presbytery’s written dismissal) was to lead to a congregational vote, which the presbytery will now not allow. This unilateral decision to end the process was reached by the Presbytery team alone while ignoring the majority voice of the congregation heard at each point of the process.

Of critical importance is the fact that the straw poll was never intended to be determinative or dispositive of the dismissal process. Its results, whether compromised or not, were to be a gauge assisting in the process, not an end unto itself. Using it as such is improper and undermines the manner in which our church is designed to operate. The majority of the church unquestionably seeks dismissal to ECO, which as a right of conscience the congregation should be able to do.

By our church charter property use is determined by majority rule, not minority veto or presbytery fiat. We, therefore, feel it is imperative, and in the best interests of the majority of the congregation, both spiritually and from a stewardship perspective, to protect the rights of conscience of the majority.”

 

 

By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call.

court12BETHLEHEM, Pa.  — In a signal of their determination to move forward with a break from the mainline Presbyterian denomination, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem filed litigation Friday requesting the court’s assistance in determining who owns the church’s 31.5-acre property worth millions of dollars.

The church claims ownership of the property, assessed at $7.9 million according to Northampton County records, because their name is on the 1955 title for the property. But that runs counter to the position by the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has ruled that a congregation’s property is “regarded as held in trust for the benefit” of the denomination.

On Friday the church filed an action seeking the court’s confirmation of its ownership of the property as well as an injunction to stop the Lehigh Presbytery, a governing body in the Presbyterian Church (USA), from seizing any property or replacing the elected leadership.

Jackie Etter, executive director and interim head of staff, said the church’s leadership is determined to follow through on what they say is the wish of the majority of the congregation to join a “denominational home more fitting.

“We had to determine what God was calling us to do here in Bethlehem,” Etter said of the church’s decision to pursue legal action. “This has become such an issue for so many churches across the country.”

Read more …

Read the press release from the church

Read the message from the session to the church members.

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First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem Told it Cannot Split from its National Branch

By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call. (Pennsylvania)

fpc-bethlehem-paThe Lehigh Presbytery has determined that there is not sufficient support within the congregation of the largest Presbyterian church in the Lehigh Valley to justify its break from the most visible national branch of the denomination.

But that doesn’t necessarily spell an end to the efforts by members of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) in favor of the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO.

In a straw poll administered by a Susquehanna Polling and Research, the church’s congregation fell short of the required two-thirds of support to move the dismissal process forward, according to an email distributed by the Lehigh Presbytery.

The poll of 1,308 of the church’s 2,600 members found 57 percent in favor of leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) and 43 percent in favor of staying, the email said.

With that poll and a survey conducted last year for First Presbyterian that showed 61 percent favoring breaking away, the Lehigh Presbytery said it considered the discernment process ended.

Instead, the Lehigh Presbytery’s email called for “reconciliation through continued and constructive dialogue.”

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