By John H. Adams
The Layman Online
Thursday, August 24, 2006
A state judge in New York's Supreme Court system has ruled that the Hudson
River Presbytery has no claim to the property of the now independent Church
The decision was a big, if temporary, victory for a tiny congregation -
membership 29 at the end of 1995, according to PCUSA records - that voted
unanimously on Jan. 10, 2005, to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The leaders of the congregation announced their departure by warning that
any attempt by the presbytery or the denomination to claim the church's
property "will be deemed slander of title, compensable by damages, and any
entry onto Ridgebury Church property by any officer and/or agent of the
Presbytery of Hudson River shall be deemed criminal trespass."
The presbytery and the Rev. Richard H. Spierling, chairman of the
presbytery's administrative commission, were undeterred. They filed a
lawsuit claiming that the property belongs to the denomination. The
complaint named as the defendants individual trustees, a denominationally
recommended strategy intended to warn elders and trustees that they could
incur personal liability amounting to thousands of dollars each if they
persisted in their local church ownership claims.
But New York Judge John K. McGuirk ruled on behalf of the congregation on
August 15, issuing a 10-page decision that declared that the Ridgebury
congregation was not obligated to submit to the hierarchical claims of the
Deciding the case under "neutral principles of law," as recommended by the
U.S. Supreme Court, McGuirk turned aside the PCUSA's argument that it is the
rightful owner of the property under the denomination's property trust
requirement in chapter 8 of the Book of Order.
Under New York law, McGuirk said, "It is hornbook [rudimentary] property law
that only the owner of real property can convey an interest in the property;
B cannot create a future interest in A's property without A's consent."
McGuirk said the congregation's property deeds never mentioned the
Presbyterian Church (USA).
Attorneys for the presbytery and the PCUSA argued that Ridgebury silently
assented to the trust clause for 25 years before voting to leave the
McQuirk acknowledged that there was some legitimacy to that argument.
However, he ruled, "mere silence and continuing its membership in the
denominational church, absent more, is an insufficient expression of an
intent to express a trust."
His ruling cited section 13 of New York's Restatement of Trusts: "[a] trust
is created only if the settler properly manifests an intention to create a
trust relationship." He also cited a comment on that section: "[t]he
manifestation of intention requires an external expression of intention as
distinguished from undisclosed intention."
"The only affirmative actions on defendants' part on this subject since 1981
were their explicit manifestation not to hold their property for the benefit
of plaintiffs," McQuirk said.
The attorney for Ridgebury is Don Nichol of Jacobowitz & Gubits, Walden,
N.Y. , who also represented Circleville Presbyterian Church during its
separation process from the Presbytery of Hudson River. After a 72-2
congregational vote in December 2002 to leave the PCUSA, Circleville
negotiated its dismissal by paying the presbytery $112,000 - then the
equivalent of $1,120 per member. Circleville is now affiliated with the
Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
Some of Nichol's strategies for litigation include a historic overview of
Presbyterian understanding of property ownership. In a commentary published
recently on The Layman Online, Nichol cites statements in The Book of
Confessions that he says support a local congregation's ownership of its
property when those claims are challenged by the denomination. The Book of
Confessions and the Book of Order together make up the Constitution of the
Presbyterians have always considered the highest authority is Scripture,
with the confessions second and the Book of Order third.
Nichol was on vacation Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
The presbytery posted a copy of the decision on its Web site and a brief
note saying that the "Presbytery Council will now be reviewing options.
Please keep all parties in your prayers for the peace, unity and purity of
It was signed by Spierling, a minister who was once excluded from membership
in the Presbytery of Palisades in a disciplinary action; Hudson River's new
executive presbyter, former General Assembly Moderator Susan Andrews; and
the presbytery's stated clerk, Harriet Sandmeier.
The Layman Online contacted Spierling's church office today and asked that
he return the call. He did not.