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Another ruling that may affect the “Dennis Canon”?

August 26, 2006

As you may realize, the PCUSA (mainline Presbyterian church) has a trust clause where property of each local church is considered to be held in trust for the denomination–much like the “Dennis Canon” of ECUSA/TEC. On August 15 a decision was reached by a New York judge that a church in that state could keep its property upon separating from the PCUSA. As reported in this article from The Layman Online, Judge John McGuirk ruled that the Hudson River Presbytery has no claim to the property of the now independent Church of Ridgebury. His ruling used (or it seems to me) reasoning that could apply to the “Dennis Canon”:

But New York Judge John K. McGuirk ruled on behalf of the congregation on August 15, issuing a 10-page decision that declared that the Ridgebury congregation was not obligated to submit to the hierarchical claims of the denomination.

Deciding the case under “neutral principles of law,” as recommended by the U.S. Supreme Court, McGuirk turned aside the PCUSA’s argument that it is the rightful owner of the property under the denomination’s property trust requirement in chapter 8 of the Book of Order.

Under New York law, McGuirk said, “It is hornbook [rudimentary] property law that only the owner of real property can convey an interest in the property; B cannot create a future interest in A’s property without A’s consent.” McGuirk said the congregation’s property deeds never mentioned the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Attorneys for the presbytery and the PCUSA argued that Ridgebury silently assented to the trust clause for 25 years before voting to leave the denomination.

McQuirk acknowledged that there was some legitimacy to that argument. However, he ruled, “mere silence and continuing its membership in the denominational church, absent more, is an insufficient expression of an intent to express a trust.”

His ruling cited section 13 of New York’s Restatement of Trusts: “[a] trust is created only if the settler properly manifests an intention to create a trust relationship.” He also cited a comment on that section: “[t]he manifestation of intention requires an external expression of intention as distinguished from undisclosed intention.”

Although I’m no lawyer, wouldn’t this reasoning also apply to the “Dennis Canon” under New York law?

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