Bishop Mark Lawrence and his Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, along with a number of member parishes, having lost a confusing, non-definitive and divided decision in that State’s Supreme Court, have filed a petition for writ of certiorari (review) in the United States Supreme Court. The petition (fifty pages, downloadable from this link) asks the Court to bring harmony to the multiple lower court decisions that diverge over the meaning of “neutral principles of law” as used by the Court in its seminal case of Jones v. Wolf, 445 U.S. 595 (1979).
As the petition lays out with masterful clarity, both state and federal courts apply differing standards of “neutral principles” in approaching the resolution of disputes over the ownership of church property:
Nearly 40 years after this Court last addressed the neutral-principles approach in Jones, the courts are deeply divided about what “neutral” means. For many courts, “neutral” means just that—“neutral”: the high courts of seven States, plus the Eighth Circuit and three intermediate state courts, follow Jones’ clear guidance and resolve property disputes between religious organizations by applying well-established state trust and property law. These jurisdictions hold that a disassociating local church’s property is held in trust for the national church only if the alleged trust satisfies ordinary state law requirements for the creation of trusts. Courts and commentators call this the “strict approach” to Jones, because it blinds judges to the religious nature of the parties to the dispute, requiring them to apply the same ordinary state law that would apply to property disputes between any other parties….
The petition then addresses the Court directly, and explains why it should grant review:
Petitioners are here for one simple reason: they are churches. If this dispute arose between two secular organizations, or between a religious and a secular organization, the party standing in Petitioners’ shoes would have prevailed. Thus, far from yielding to the First Amendment, the decision below actually violates it. The Religion Clauses command a “principle of neutrality” whereby “the government may not favor one religion over another, or religion over irreligion, religious choice being the prerogative of individuals under the Free Exercise Clause.” McCreary Cty. v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U.S. 844, 875-76 (2005). The hybrid approach disregards this vital bulwark, favoring one religious organization over another by allowing a national church to disregard the requirements of state trust law at the expense of a disassociated congregation’s claim to property. As two leading commentators recently emphasized, the strict approach to Jones is “the only approach consistent with the free exercise and nonentanglement principles of the Religion Clauses.” Michael W. McConnell & Luke W. Goodrich, On Resolving Church Property Disputes, 58 ARIZ. L. REV. 307, 311 (2016).
The persistent confusion over the meaning of Jones and the neutral-principles approach has resulted in polar-opposite outcomes in materially indistinguishable cases, creating enormous — and enormously expensive — uncertainty for this country’s religious institutions. Case outcomes turn on courts’ differing interpretations of Jones and the First Amendment, not on how the parties have arranged their affairs under state law. This case could have been easily resolved under ordinary state trust and property law. Instead, the parties and the property have been mired in litigation since 2013. Several years and millions of dollars later, Petitioners seek this Court’s review.