Appeals court overturns ruling on control of church

May 2, 2014
Commonwealth Court reversed a lower court ruling and ruled that a minority faction that did not vote to leave the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 2007 should have ownership of Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church in Venetia. - Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

A Commonwealth Court order issued this week overturned a lower court ruling and said a Peters Township church should remain in the control of a minority group that voted against leaving the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. more than six years ago.

The ruling reversed two prior orders by former Washington County Judge Paul Pozonsky that granted possession of the Peters Creek United Presbyterian Church to the majority that voted in November 2007 to sever its affiliation with the PCUSA and the Washington Presbytery. The group is now Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The remaining members, the minority, argued that the actions were contrary to the charter and bylaws of the church. They also claimed that the vote was in violation of the denomination’s Book of Order and the constitution and bylaws of PCUSA and state law. As a result, more than two dozen members who opposed the congregation’s break with the denomination filed a civil case in Washington County Court.

Pozonsky issued two orders, on Oct. 1, 2009 and March 31, 2010, that the Peters Creek Church did not hold its property in trust for the Washington Presbytery or the PCUSA and that the Nov. 7, 2007, vote to disaffiliate was proper and that the control of the church was with the majority group that split.

Commonwealth Court issued its 4-3 ruling Wednesday. The majority opinion, written by President Judge Dan Pellegrini, disagreed with the lower court’s ruling and ruled that the church property at 250 Brookwood Road, Venetia, was held in trust for the PCUSA and the Washington Presbytery, and therefore, they are the beneficial owners of the property. The court also ruled that the vote the to disaffiliate from the PCUSA was improper.

“Internecine battles of this kind have existed for hundred of years in our jurisprudence,” Pelligrini wrote. “Such disputes are not unique in the Commonwealth and always entail much emotion and often sadness among the competing factions.”

The order requires the majority faction to refrain from interfering with the use of the church consistent with its obligations as trustee for the presbytery and PCUSA. In addition, the court also remanded the matter to Washington County Court to dispose of other outstanding details.

Jeff Tindall, the attorney representing the minority, said the process could take several months.

“My clients, who have been designated as the ‘true church,’ are interested in hearing what the majority and the Washington Presbytery have to say about ending the case,” Tindall said.

Steve Marriner, the attorney representing the Washington Presbytery, declined comment. The attorney representing the majority group, Andrea Geraghty, could not be reached for comment.

The majority group is now using the Brookwood Road church, while the minority has rented property at 800 Venetia Road, Venetia. The pastors at both congregations did not return calls for comment.

According to the opinion, the court had to decide on three issues; whether the trial erred by not enforcing the Washington Presbytery’s determination that the minority, and not the majority, was the “true church” ; whether the trial court erred by holding that Peters Creek Church property was held in trust for the Washington Presbytery and the PCUSA and finally, whether the trial court erred in not nullifying the majority’s 2007 vote to amend the corporate bylaws and disaffiliate from the Presbytery and the PCUSA.

Pellegrini noted in the opinion that the Commonwealth Court “has no authority to determine who among the parties is the true church, and that the appellants are incorrect that their religious determination necessarily controls our holding on the remaining issues.”

Pellegrini also said that the “determination of who is and who is not the ‘true church’ does not control the fate of the Peters Creek Church’s property, nor does it control whether the majority vote of Nov. 4, 2007, was proper. Those issues must be decided under civil law.”

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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