(By Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call). The fate of the stately property on Center Street in Bethlehem, home to the largest Presbyterian church in the Lehigh Valley for 65 years, is now in the hands of Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta.
Testimony from 14 witnesses, two of whom spoke via video feed from remote locations, along with binders loaded with documents dating back to the 1800s were crammed into the three-day trial seeking to get to the bottom of an emotional property dispute within the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.
The courtroom, packed again Wednesday, contained congregants from both sides who said they were eager to move past what many described between breaks in the proceedings as a painful process. Baratta’s ruling is expected in a written order within several weeks.
The Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, now affiliated with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, or ECO, broke away from the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) in June 2016 after a congregational vote in which the majority favored a more conservative denomination. The Presbyterian Church (USA) was drifting away from the theological views of much of the congregation, a trend seen around the country as other churches responded to a raft of changes, including the ordination of gay ministers and recognition of gay marriage.
The Lehigh Presbytery, the regional authority of the national denomination, opposed the move, but shortly after the June vote, the church filed litigation seeking the court to rule on the rightful owner of the 31.5 acres at 2344 Center St..
The Lehigh Presbytery maintains that the property of the church is held in trust for the denomination — rules that are established in the Book of Order, the denomination’s constitution. But the church argues the deed and charter — civil documents as opposed to the ecclesiastical Book of Order — hold greater sway in the court of law.
Joanne Kelhart, a former church trustee and elder, testified Wednesday that she was troubled by the church’s push to shore up its claim to the property with controversial charter changes ahead of the June 2016 vote to disaffiliate.
(Photo from the First Presbyterian Church Facebook page).