Confusion and Coercion in Church Property Litigation

This Note argues that by allowing states to apply their own idiosyncratic common and statutory law to disputes over church property between supercongregational denominations and local parishes, the “neutral principles” approach that the Supreme Court validated in Jones v. Wolf inevitably creates inconsistency in the results of these disputes. This inconsistency in turn coerces denominations such as the Protestant Episcopal Church and the United Presbyterian Church into abandoning either their method of property management or traditional control over parishes. In effect, mainline supercongregational Protestant denominations are forced, in violation of their Free Exercise right to choose their own form of governance, to become either more “Catholic” or more “Baptist.” As a remedy to this problem, this Note proposes a novel solution—a federal statute to standardize and simplify the decision rules for church property disputes. Although such a statute would raise constitutional issues of its own, this Note concludes that such a statute would be within Congressional jurisdiction and permissible under both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.