Who owns the church building?: The Episcopal Case

The Episcopalian Church has experienced its share of conflict in the last four years. After a 2009 vote by the church’s house of bishops that proclaimed that gays and lesbians would have equal access to leadership positions, individual churches have been declaring their independence from the broader church.

When this happens, it leaves open a vital question: the question of who, exactly, has rights to the church property. Traditionally, the Episcopal Church has been able to win the rights to the property on the grounds that it owns the local properties and has rights to the Episcopal Church name. But two large cases, one in South Carolina and the other in Georgia, could conceivably go either way – and with them, five hundred million dollars in property.

Religion News Service breaks down the arguments on both sides of the case. Basically, there are no clear answers – the Episcopal Church at large, in theory, owns the property and the name under the Dennis Canon, which opponents are arguing that they 1. never agreed to and 2. could back out of even if they agreed to it. South Carolina courts have decided in favor of Episcopal Churches in the past if they can prove that they never agreed to the Dennis Canon, but it seems unlikely that the arguments that worked in South Carolina would also work on a federal level. The fact that the local churches want the rights to the name also seems to be asking for defeat: can you imagine, say, a Hardee’s franchise declaring independence from the chain, but demanding they retain the name “Hardee’s”?

The moral for denominations of the future? Make sure that you’re clear who exactly owns that sacred space. Millions of dollars are at stake.

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