HELENA, Mont. – The Montana Supreme Court has ruled the property of a Lutheran church in Great Falls belongs to a few dozen members of the congregation who stuck with its national denomination after the majority split off in protest of the ordination of gay ministers.
In doing so, the justices said in the unanimous decision Wednesday that they could rule on matters of church property without intruding on constitutional religious freedoms, a position the Montana court and the U.S. Supreme Court have taken before.
In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America decided to allow the ordination of men and women in committed same-sex relationships. The following year, 71 percent of the congregation of Faith Lutheran Church voted to break off from the national denomination.
The church’s constitution allows such a schism if at least two-thirds of the members approve it, but it requires a 90 percent vote to take the church’s property with them.
The 71 percent of the members who voted for the split kept the Faith Lutheran name and continued to control the church’s property. Some 48 people – about half of those who voted to remain affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America – formed the New Hope Lutheran Ministry.
The New Hope congregation sued for control of Faith Lutheran’s property and that of the Foundation for the Endowment of Faith Lutheran Church Inc. New Hope said the 90 percent threshold in the church’s constitution had not been met, so the church’s property belonged with those who remained.
A Cascade County judge ruled in favor of New Hope, leading Faith Lutheran and the foundation to appeal to the Supreme Court.
Among its arguments, Faith Lutheran said the dispute is between members of a religious organization and a civil court ruling on it would violate the religious freedoms in the First Amendment.
The court can decide a matter of church property without delving into church doctrine, Justice Jim Rice wrote in the Supreme Court’s opinion.
The church constitution used secular language in determining issues of its property, which permits the court to apply property, trust and corporate law without violating the First Amendment, he wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that “neutral principles approach,” and the state Supreme Court has applied it in at least one other past case.
The 90 percent vote required to transfer the property is clear, and Faith Lutheran’s vote to split did not meet that threshold, meaning the church’s property stays with New Hope, Rice wrote.
But Rice said control of the foundation’s assets should remain with Faith Lutheran, and not go to New Hope. The foundation is a stand-alone entity and a nonprofit corporation that is tied to Faith Lutheran without regard to its denominational affiliation, Rice wrote.
Montana Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion had urged the Supreme Court to prevent the foundation from being turned over to New Hope, saying it would set a bad precedent. The attorney general’s office oversees charities and nonprofit organizations operating in Montana.
“Donors who give to foundations and designated funds at community foundations may be chilled from making such donations in the future because of uncertainty as to their eventual use,” Bennion wrote.