Editor’s Note: The following is from an e-mail from Reclaim News. For more information you can go to: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ReclaimNews/.
LCMS Tells Court It Is Hierarchical and Owns Churches
Since its founding in 1847, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has claimed that its member congregations are autonomous and that it holds no equity in church property. However, on September 9, 2010, the LCMS told Judge Marshall Whitley in Alameda County Superior Court Oakland CA that the LCMS is “hierarchical” and that a congregation’s membership in the Synod gives the Synod Episcopal rights over church property.
Attorney Sherri Strand, legal counsel to the LCMS Board of Directors, filed a Motion to Reconsider in the LCMS-CNHD suit against Sharon Bowles, Mary-Ann Hill, Portia Ridgeway, and Celia Moyer for the church property of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church of Oakland, CA (case number RG07363452). Strand’s motion quoted a new Opinion from the Synod’s Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) which says the LCMS is “hierarchical” in property rights.
In its motion, the Synod argues that according to the Handbook, membership in the LCMS gives the LCMS the right to a congregation’s property. If Strand’s Motion to Reconsider convinces the Judge to reverse his early Order against the Synod, the LCMS will have established a legal precedent that they are the owners of all LCMS congregations. This will give the Synod at least 10 billion dollars in new collateral. The bold type illustrates the key phrases that Strand writes to the court as follows:
The LCMS is a connectional religious denomination, under which each member congregation has agreed to and are committed to act in accord with the Synod’s Bylaws and Constitution. (Resp. Fact 1). The LCMS more resembles—at least for present purposes involving secular court determinations of properly disputes—a “hierarchical” structure where the congregation is “itself part of a large and general organization of some religious denomination, with which it is more or less intimately connected by religious views and ecclesiastical government.” Episcopal Church Cases, 45 Cal.4th at 480 (citing Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679, 726-27 (1871)). Therefore, the cases resolving property disputes involving so called “hierarchical” churches are most applicable to resolving a property dispute within the LCMS. In such cases, as here, “whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these [“hierarchical”] church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them.” Id. at 408 (citing Watson, 80 U.S. at 727; Serbian Orhodox [sic] Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696, 710 (1976)).
The LCMS Handbook Article VII.2 reads: “Membership of a congregation in the Synod gives the Synod no equity in the property of the congregation.”
However, Strand argues that ownership of church property is a matter of doctrine and the Court has to accept whatever meaning or interpretation the LCMS wants to apply to its own Handbook. Strand writes: “This Court “must accept as binding “any church adjudication ‘regarding question s [sic] of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law…” Id. as 483 (citing Jones, 443 U.S. 595). In short, “if resolution of a property dispute involves a point of doctrine, the court must defer to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the point.”
The CCM, the highest ecclesiastical authority in the LCMS, ruled in May of 2004 that its Opinions are binding all congregations, pastors, and officers of the LCMS. The CCM is now claiming that CCM rulings are also binding on American Courts based on the separation of church and state.
The CCM wrote its new Opinion CCM 10-2581 for the Court the day before the Judge was to make his final ruling against the LCMS on September 10th, 2010.
The Synod is claiming that no court has the right to decide its matters because it is a church. What is at stake here is if the Constitutional right of the Freedom of Religion exempts the LCMS from laws governing constitutional rights to own private property. In other words, when a church joins the LCMS, it is saying that a church gives up its right to ownership as a condition of membership in the LCMS.
Therefore, the LCMS can tell its member congregations that they are autonomous in the Handbook, but only the LCMS has the right to determine what that means because they are a church. The Judge must defer to the LCMS’s own dictionary for the meaning of words on the basis of religion. According to the freedom of religion, a church can say whatever it wants a word to mean because there is no definition of religion in the U. S. Constitution.
We will see if the Judge agrees that the Freedom of Religion gives a church not only the authority to interpret the Bible but also Webster’s Dictionary. What if the LCMS also decides that its Handbook gives it the right police power?
At this time, there are only two people standing in the way of the LCMS’s claim to own all member congregations: Defense Attorney Paul Nelson and Judge Marshall Whitley. If the Judge rules in favor of the Synod, congregations will have to go to court to reverse the ruling. Thus far it has cost the defendants about $600,000 to force this admission of owning church property from the LCMS.
LCMS pastors are not informing their congregations about what is taking place. The new LCMS president is not speaking about the suit. There is a total news black-out about this suit in the LCMS including all districts offices. The only source of information about the suit is Christian News, this writer’s blog (Reclaim News), and the courts website.
Most lay people in the LCMS have never heard of the CCM and are under the delusion that the LCMS claims a literal interpretation of the Bible and its own Handbook. Silence from the congregations only convinces the Synod it is safe to continue to sue Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Oakland CA.
Ten Billion is a lot of collateral in anyone’s portfolio. The LCMS Council of Presidents is attempting to accomplish in an Alameda County Superior Court what it could never accomplish in a Synodical Convention.