April 17: Historic Property Cases

On April 17, 1966, because of extreme liberal trends in their parent church, two Savannah Presbyterian churches, Hull Memorial and Eastern Heights, led by their pastors Clifford Brewton and Todd Allen, voted to sever all ties with the Presbyterian Church U. S. denomination. This action resulted in the Presbytery attempting to take control of the property, and a court case, settled first by a local jury that ruled unanimously in favor of the two congregations. Rev. Todd Allen comments that:

“Savannah Presbytery then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court who approved the Jury decision unanimously in favor of the two congregations. The case was then appealed to the United States Supreme Court who remanded the case back to the Georgia Supreme Court giving neutral principles of law for that court to use in adjudicating the case. The Georgia Supreme applied the neutral principle enunciated by the United States Supreme Court and by a  unanimous  decision awarded the two local churches their church properties. The presbytery again appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case and that ended litigation after 3 ½ years of litigation in January of 1970. It should be noted that all court decisions were unanimous.”

The Savannah court case was an unprecedented, history-making event that overturned nearly 100 years of inequitable law practices in the United States and changed the way the civil courts in the future could deal with church property disputes. The case caused major church denominations to study their administration, relations, and rules relating to their connection with local church congregations. The specific and immediate effect of the case was a means for a somewhat peaceful withdrawal in 1973—with their properties—of some 250 churches from the Presbyterian Church U. S.  The case was a crucial element in the success of the Continuing Church movement that resulted in the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).

 

The significance of the historic event was, at least in that immediate historical context, that no longer could church tribunals exercise property takeover tactics to force compliance to certain disputed doctrines, or for any other reason the denomination may choose: Ended was the practice of stealing church property in the name of organized religion. This case liberated those local churches in the PCUS from denominational tyranny.|

 

The heart of the Supreme Court ruling in the Savannah case was in favor of what are termed neutral principles of law, as opposed to the civil court being guided or even ruled by the doctrines (including bylaws and constitution) of the denomination.

 

During the time that the property issue continued to be debated and was sent to the Georgia Supreme Court, Pastor Brewton accepted an appointment as an aide to Governor Lester Maddox, resigned the pastorate at Hull Memorial, and moved to Atlanta. Meanwhile Pastor Todd Allen was at the forefront in the property struggle through the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled for the local churches, and the case then went onward to the U. S. Supreme Court. Allen also was a leader in organizing Vanguard Presbytery in 1972, a new presbytery established for churches withdrawing from the PCUS, thus providing them a Presbytery to join while awaiting the formation of the new denomination.

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