Jones v. Wolf - 443 U.S. 595 (1979)
U.S. Supreme Court
Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979)
Jones v. Wolf
Argued Jan. 16, 1979
Decided July 2, 1979
443 U.S. 595
This case involves a dispute over the ownership of church property following a schism in a local church affiliated with a hierarchical church organization. The property of the Vineville Presbyterian Church of Macon, Ga. (local church), is held in the names of the local church or of trustees for the local church. That church, however, was established as a member of the Augusta-Macon Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), which has a generally hierarchical form of government. Under the polity of the PCUS, the government of the local church is committed to its Session in the first instance, but the actions of this "court" are subject to the review and control of the higher church courts (the Presbytery, Synod, and General Assembly). At a congregational meeting attended by a quorum of the local church's members, 164 of them voted to separate from the PCUS, while 94 opposed the resolution. The majority then united with another denomination and has retained possession of the local church property. The Augusta-Macon Presbytery appointed a commission to investigate the dispute, and the commission eventually issued a ruling declaring that the minority faction constituted the "true congregation" of the local church, and withdrawing from the majority faction "all authority to exercise office derived from the [PCUS]." Representatives of the minority faction brought this class action in state court, seeking declaratory and injunctive orders establishing their right to exclusive possession and use of the local church's property as a member of the PCUS. The trial court, purporting to apply Georgia's "neutral principles of law" approach to church property disputes, granted judgment for the majority. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the trial court had correctly stated and applied Georgia law and rejecting the minority's challenge based on the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
1. As a means of adjudicating a church property dispute, a State is constitutionally entitled to adopt a "neutral principles of law" analysis involving consideration of the deeds, state statutes governing the holding of church property, the local church's charter, and the general church's constitution. The First Amendment does not require the States to adopt a rule of compulsory deference to religious authority in
resolving church property disputes, even where no issue of doctrinal controversy is involved. Pp. 443 U. S. 602-606.
2. Here, the case must be remanded since the grounds for the Georgia courts' decision that the majority faction represents the local church were not articulated, both the trial court and the Georgia Supreme Court having applied Georgia's neutral principles analysis as developed in cases involving church property disputes between general churches and entire local congregations, without alluding to the significant complicating factor in the present case that the local congregation was itself divided. If in fact Georgia has adopted a presumptive rule of majority representation, defeasible upon a showing that the identity of the local church is to be determined by some other means, this would be consistent with both the neutral principles analysis and the First Amendment. However, there are at least some indications that, under Georgia law, the process of identifying the faction that represents a local church involves considerations of religious doctrine and polity, and thus, if Georgia law provides that the identity of the local church here is to be determined according to the laws and regulations of the PCUS, then the First Amendment requires that the Georgia courts give deference to the presbyterial commission's determination that the minority faction represents the "true congregation." Pp. 443 U. S. 606-610.
241 Ga. 208, 243 S.E.2d 860, vacated and remanded.