In a partial reversal of a 2012 decision by a Cascade County District Court judge, the Montana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a foundation holding assets for Faith Lutheran Church of Great Falls should be controlled by church members who voted to split from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) after it began ordaining gay clergymen.
In the unanimous decision, the court upheld the lower court ruling that the church building and immediate assets should remain under the control of the minority of the congregation who chose to remain affiliated with the ELCA.
Following the ELCA’s decision in 2009 to allow ordaining men and women in same-sex relationships as ministers, 71 percent of Faith Lutheran’s membership voted to disaffiliate from the ELCA.
The remaining 29 percent of New Faith’s membership reconstituted themselves as New Hope Lutheran Ministry and sued for control of church property and the endowment held by Faith Lutheran’s foundation.
New Hope members said the church constitution required a 90 percent vote in order for a disaffiliating group to retain control of church property, and foundation assets held in trust for the church were subject to the same provision.
Because the disaffiliation vote did not receive a 90 percent majority, they argued, New Hope was entitled to church and foundation assets.
The Faith Lutheran majority counter-argued that the dispute involved matters of religious doctrine, meaning any court intervention would be a violation of the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of religion.
In a 2012 summary judgment, a lower court judge ruled the dispute could be resolved by the public court system because the contested matters involved only secular legal issues as opposed to interpretation of church doctrine.
On that basis, it was determined that New Hope was entitled to all church and foundation property.
On Wednesday, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously agreed with the District Court’s decision that it had jurisdiction over the dispute and validated the finding that New Hope was entitled to church property. However, it ruled that the church foundation, constituted as an independent entity, retrained discretion to use its property for the benefit of the majority group despite its departure from the ELCA.
“This is a very painful thing for everybody all around,” said Jessica Crist, the ELCA bishop who oversaw Faith Lutheran before the schism and still works with the New Hope congregation.
The Faith Lutheran majority retained occupancy of the building throughout the legal proceedings, Crist said, saying that decisions reacting to court decisions are likely to be forthcoming.
Her hope, she said, is that things can be put behind so the congregations can get back to focusing on work with people.
“The church is really the people,” she said.
Reach Staff Writer Eric Dietrich at 791-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
He can also be followed on Twitter at @GFTrib_EricD.