GEORGIA: Appeals Court favors Timberridge Presbyterian Church Congregation

NOTE: On Nov. 30, 2010, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the local church, in Timberidge Presbyterian Church v. The Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. This important decision has implications, both helpful and potentially vexing, for the Episcopal case of Christ Church Savannah whose application for review is currently pending before the Ga. Supreme Court. I am grateful to Mr. Lloyd Lunceford co-counsel of record for Timberridge Presbyterian Church for sending VOL this story.

By Edward Terry,
The Layman
http://www.layman.org/News.aspx?article=27847
December 2, 2010

Round two in the fight for ownership of Timberridge Presbyterian Church’s property has gone to the congregation.

According to a Nov. 30 ruling, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment that had awarded the disputed property to the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.

The appeals court states that applying the neutral principles of law to the case does not demonstrate that the presbytery has a right to control the local church corporation or its property. Formerly a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the 300-member McDonough, Ga., congregation left the denomination in November 2007 and has been embroiled in the property dispute since.

The presbytery formed an administrative commission and Timberridge went to court to protect its property rights. A Georgia Superior Court ruled in March 2009 in favor of the presbytery’s property claim, and Timberridge appealed the decision. News of the Nov. 30 reversal brought forth many emotions, said the Rev. Matt Allison, Timberridge’s pastor.

“We’ve always said we were prepared to praise God however the outcome was … we’re obviously very thankful for the ruling and humbled He would look on us with such kindness and favor,” said Allison, who also offered praise for leadership by the church’s session. “This has gone on a long time … there’s a lot of gratitude, relief and excitement. People are excited about the idea of being able to move forward with ministry.”

The ruling states that the absence of trust language in relevant documents, such as deeds and articles of incorporation, weighs against the presbytery’s argument of an implied trust. It also declares that under the neutral applications of legal principles, the PCUSA Book of Order does not establish control by the presbytery over the church corporation.

“In applying neutral principles of law as required by the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Georgia, we cannot ignore relevant statutes, documents of the local body, or the actual language of the relevant deeds, in favor … of the rules of the national body,” the judgment states.

“The narrow approach urged by the presbytery would result in a de facto ‘rule of compulsory deference to religious authority in resolving church property disputes, even where no issue of doctrinal controversy is involved,’ as disapproved by the United States Supreme Court in Jones v. Wolf … ”

The judgment also denies attempts by the presbytery to assign an implied trust rule through the congregation’s previous association with the PCUSA.

“It is undisputed that the deeds are silent regarding any trust in favor of the presbytery or the national church, that the local church’s documents are silent regarding any creation of a trust or naming of a trustee, and that the local church attempted to opt out of the property trust provisions of the PCUSA Book of Order within the time frame provided for that process,” the ruling states.

“Applying neutral principles of law … we must conclude that the presbytery has not presented evidence demonstrating with reasonable certainty an intention on the part of Timberridge to create a trust in its favor.” It is unknown at this time whether the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta plans to appeal.

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