• A Church's Regional Council Cannot Seize an Individual Church's Property without Express Authority in the Governing Documents
  • June 25, 2009 | Author: Amara Harrell
  • Law Firm: Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard, A Law Corporation - Sacramento Office
  • In Iglesia Evangelica Latina, Inc. v. Southern Pacific Latin American District of the Assemblies of God, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ---, Cal.App. 2 Dist., April 27, 2009), a California Court of Appeal considered whether a regional church council, as a result of a dispute with one of its individual churches, could take control of that church and seize its property. The court ruled that absent express authority to do so in the church’s governing documents, the council’s takeover of the church and the taking of its property were improper.

    For a discussion of the referenced Episcopal Church Cases, please see our Legal Alert entitled, “When A Local Parish Withdraws Its Affiliation From The Greater Denominational Church, Its Property Reverts To The Denominational Church When The Local Parish Agreed To Be Bound By The Greater Church’s Governing Documents”, January 21, 2009.

    Iglesia Evangelica Latina, Inc. (“IEL”) was an individual church within the Southern Pacific Latin American District (“SPLAD”), which was a regional council of the Assemblies of God Church, covering California, Nevada, Hawaii and Arizona.

    In 2005, some IEL members complained to SPLAD that IEL pastor Juan Reyes was taking church money and sending it to a “sister” church in Guatemala. SPLAD removed books and records, musical instruments, and computer equipment from IEL, suspended Reyes, and then replaced him. SPLAD officials decided they would take control of IEL, replace its board members, and transfer properties held by IEL to SPLAD.

    Reyes, individually and on behalf of IEL, filed suit seeking to regain possession of the church and its properties. SPLAD countersued, seeking a declaration that it was in rightful control of the church and its properties, and an order to keep Reyes and other former EIL officials out of the church. The trial court ruled in favor of SPLAD. IEL appealed.

    The appeal presented two issues: (1) did SPLAD validly take control of IEL, and (2) upon so doing, could it rightfully transfer IEL’s property to itself?

    Referring to the California Supreme Court’s recent ruling in In re Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467, the court noted that disputes over church property must be settled by “neutral principles” without reference to religious doctrine. In that case, the court ruled the property of an individual church that had disaffiliated itself from its national church reverted to the national church because its governing documents expressly specified that result, and the local church had agreed to abide by those terms.

    Such was not the case here, the court said. SPLAD’s hierarchical structure, by itself, was insufficient to allow it to ignore IEL’s corporate form, and at no point had IEL agreed to yield control of its operations to SPLAD in the event of a dispute. “In the absence of more specific directives in the parties’ documents, Assemblies of God’s and SPLAD’s sovereignty with respect to the supervision and control of district council churches cannot be read to supplant IEL’s own bylaws,” the court said.

    Similarly, the mere fact that Assemblies of God is a hierarchical church, with SPLAD overseeing IEL and other individual churches, was insufficient, without express provisions, to allow SPLAD to convey IEL’s property to itself. To the contrary, the court said, the Assemblies of God’s own constitution gives an individual church the right to acquire and hold title to property, and the fact that a church “is affiliated with The General Counsel of the Assemblies of God shall in no way destroy its rights as above stated or interfere with its sovereignty.”

    The court concluded IEL was an aggrieved party. The trial court judgment in favor of SPLAD was reversed and remanded.