From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Judge upholds Alaska Missionary Conference's property rights

From "NewsDesk" <NewsDesk@UMCOM.ORG>
Date Fri, 16 Apr 2004 15:08:33 -0500

April 16, 2004	News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert7(615)742-54707Nashville,
Tenn. 7 E-mail: 7ALL{177}

By United Methodist News Service

Alaska Superior Court Judge Richard D. Savell has sided with the United
Methodist Alaska Missionary Conference in the church's property dispute with
members of a former congregation in Fairbanks. 

In a 27-page decision released April 13, Savell upheld the conference's right
to control the disposition of the property of the former St. Paul United
Methodist Church in Fairbanks. 

In 2002, the Alaska Missionary Conference voted 61-1 to discontinue the
church. Afterward, some members of the former congregation denied the
conference access to the church building. The conference then went to court
to assert its right of ownership of the property. 
In his decision, Savell ruled, "the property belongs to the AMC (Alaska
Missionary Conference)" and ordered that the name of the dissident
congregation, "St. Paul Inc.," be removed from the title of the property. He
also ruled the board of trustees of the Alaska Missionary Conference be
listed as the legal, titled owner of the property.

"This is the right decision," said the Rev. Rachel Lieder Simeon,
superintendent of the Alaska Missionary Conference. "This has been a long and
arduous process. We are deeply grateful for the prayers that have been
offered as we have moved through this difficult time. 

"We are very pleased that the actions taken by the Alaska Missionary
Conference concerning this issue have been upheld in both the civil court and
by our own Judicial Council," she said. The United Methodist Judicial Council
is the denomination's supreme court.

"While we were confident that the courts would uphold church law, we
recognize that this decision is painful for those who sought a different
result, and hope for some healing to occur as this process concludes," Lieder
Simeon said.

A spokesperson for St. Paul Church Inc. said United Methodist officials
expelled the church from the denomination's membership and did not explain
the reasons.

"A key element appears to be St. Paul's decision to elect its leadership
freely rather than accepting demands from the superintendent of the annual
conference," said Cam Carlson, in a written statement provided by the
defendants in the case.

"During the two years since St. Paul was severed from the United Methodist
Church, St. Paul has continued a rich and full program of worship, Christian
education and fellowship."

Carlson said the timing of the decision is "opportune" because it comes
before the United Methodist 2004 General Conference convenes April 27. The
denomination's lawmaking assembly will meet in Pittsburgh through May 7.

"If this very dangerous precedent of expelling churches and seizing their
property is allowed to continue in the United Methodist Church, any minority
voice in any conference in the country could be silenced with no recourse,"
Carlson said.

Lieder Simeon said the Alaska Missionary Conference intends to continue using
the property for ministry in Fairbanks. The conference will work with the
defendants to implement an orderly transfer of the property back to the

An appeal may be filed, but Lieder Simeon said the conference is confident
Savell's ruling will stand.

Savell upheld the Alaska Missionary Conference's argument that the case
should be decided using the U.S. Supreme Court's "neutral principles" test
without resorting to any analysis of doctrine or theological position.	
In his decision, Savell referred to the denomination's Book of Discipline
regarding the ownership of property. He ruled that the section of church law
known as the trust clause contains "no references to any theological tenets"
and is "wholly secular" in its application to property.

Savell's ruling follows a United Methodist Judicial Council decision that
upheld the conference's right to discontinue using the church. In a 2003
interview, Lieder Simeon explained that the congregation's core lay
leadership was "unwilling to be subject to the authority of the denomination"
and would not take instructions from the pastor, superintendent or bishop.

The St. Paul members who were opposed to the discontinuance appealed it
unsuccessfully. They also changed the church's name on its local
incorporation papers to "St. Paul Church Inc." in an effort to retain
ownership of the property, according to the court decision.


United Methodist News Service
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