The Supreme Court on Monday declined the petition in a dispute over church ownership following a split in the Episcopal Church. Questions of church property are challenging for courts, because they often require judges to make decisions about ownership within a church structure. As Lyle Deniston explains in a new column for the Constitution Center, the Court in 1979 authorized judges to investigate relevant documents including deeds and trusts to make such determinations, so long as they remained neutral on any religious question. That approach has come under criticism in recent years, in favor of a method that defers to the governing structure of a hierarchical church.
The Court’s decision Monday represented a refusal to reconsider that question, for now.
When the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, it provided no explanation. It may have been that the Justices did not think the case was finished in lower courts. And it may be that the court simply had no appetite for reopening a generations-old controversy that would probably wind up dividing the Justices as deeply as it does the feuding denominations, and leave nobody satisfied.
As AP reports, the Supreme Court’s decision leaves in place the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling – in favor of the Fort Worth Diocese and against the Episcopal Church – that neutral principles, and not deference should be applied in such disputes, sending the case back for further review.