South Carolina Courts Rule in Favor of Redeemer
OK! The headline is a stretch, but the issues in this South Carolina intra-church feud are the same issues that Redeemer (2×2’s parent church) hoped Pennsylvania courts would hear sometime between 2008 and 2011.
We didn’t fare so well in Pennsylvania. Our courts ruled that they don’t have jurisdiction in church cases, which leaves Pennsylvania denominations in a state of lawlessness. A final ruling contained this troublesome note: If the law were applied, Redeemer’s arguments have merit.
But the law doesn’t matter in Pennsylvania churches.
There are notable differences between the points made in this article and our long saga.
- This is a group of churches, not just one tiny church. They also included some of the diocese’s larger congregations. They had more resources than our little church! Click on the link in the article to download the 46-page ruling. Six of those pages list the 36 attorneys involved!)
- The stakes are greater — $500 million in property as opposed to $1 million, more or less.
- Their effort was clergy-led, which gave them more credibility in court. When both sides in the issue wear collars, judges can’t as easily talk down to laity involved.
- No volunteer members of congregations were named personally—a travesty that should shame the member churches of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod (SEPA), but doesn’t.
Those are the major differences. There is much the same. If in six years, Pennsylvania courts had decided to hear SEPA vs Redeemer, we would have made the same arguments.
- That our rights under Lutheran law were denied.
- If you have the right to join, you have the right to withdraw.
- That the internal review process within the church was biased to the point of nonexistence.
- That congregational representatives are elected to serve the congregation—not the bishop.
- That the history of our congregation and property ownership predate the establishment of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Had our case been heard, we could have detailed the abuses and countered the arguments and claims of synod officials. None of that happened.
The Illusion of Justice
Our case was not argued in or out of the church. Our presentation to the Synod Assembly did not allow for questions and answers! We were already being sued by the Synod—so what outcome could be expected? While Redeemer was allotted a set time—about 15 minutes—we were not permitted to be part of the discussion afterwards The synod took the same amount of time and added 20 minutes of witnesses who were lined up at microphones. They spoke with great authority knowing they could not be questioned. This was so orchestrated that the synod admitted just before our presentation that they were doubling the amount of time for “discussion.” They had the “discussers” predetermined and knew exactly how much time they would take. The first person who came to the microphone with a question was told “time’s up.” Some of these experts on Redeemer were unknown to our congregation! Others hadn’t set foot in our church in 15 years! That’s how you settle a million dollar issue in 50 minutes.
Checks and balances? That’s the Synod Council’s job. Elected to represent the congregations, they acted as an arm of the bishop’s office. Early on, one of our members approached one such elected representative and reported upon his return that he was met with a threatening tirade and couldn’t get a word in. This should trouble member congregations but most seem happy as long as they are left alone. The culture of bullying.
ELCA constitutions allow for a congregation to withdraw. The statute calls for such a request to signal 90 days of negotiation—which is what we were hoping for when we made the withdrawal request. Instead, we received a fax from synod’s lawyer that we could not withdraw because we were “terminated” by decree—a process not defined in the constitution. Church constitutions are worthless in Pennsylvania.
In fact, there was no vote to terminate Redeemer until June 2010—two years later—and it is still constitutionally questionable. Our congregation would have had a right to be part of the process and challenge this and other decisions under Lutheran law. We were denied representation or voice within the church during those two years! Under synod rules, this makes all Synod Assembly proceedings during this time and perhaps after invalid legally—but laws in the church do not apply.
There are many church property and governance cases in the courts. Lutheran and Episcopal cases dominate. Historically Lutheran and Episcopal polities are entirely different, but today’s Lutheran leaders crave the land ownership polity of the Episcopal tradition and use their “full communion” agreements to justify unLutheran thinking. But, as this case shows, the Episcopal tradition is crumbling. Perhaps we should be happy we are Lutheran.
The Tide May Be Turning
Regardless, cases since our loss have often sided with congregations. One case in Pennsylvania (Presbyterian) was being heard at the same time courts were refusing to hear ours—and the ruling was in favor of the congregation.
Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America take note. The tide may be shifting. It might be easier to read and follow your rules rather than asking secular courts to give you authority your congregations don’t give you. Member churches should look into just how much the last six years have cost you. What, if anything, did all the animosity gain?
One day the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America may have a presiding bishop that actually presides!