In Maryland and Virginia Eldership of the Churches of God v. Church of God at Sharpsburg, 396 U.S. 367 (1970), the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed that in settling church disputes, courts do not raise First Amendment concerns as long as they do not inquire about church doctrine.
Church eldership used courts to resolve property dispute
The case involved an effort by the general eldership of a church to prevent two secessionist congregations from taking church property. Relying on state statutory law relative to religious corporations, language in the deeds, charters, and pertinent provisions in the constitution of the general eldership, the lower courts had resolved the controversy in favor of the secessionists.
Court ruled that a state could resolve church disputes three ways
In an opinion joined by Justices William O. Douglas and Thurgood Marshall and concurring with the Court’s per curiam judgment, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. affirmed that a state could pursue any of three paths in resolving church disputes without inquiry into doctrinal issues.
- First, a state can, following Watson v. Jones (1871), vest property in a majority of members of congregational polities or follow the judgment of the highest authority within a hierarchical policy, where the property conveyance instrument does not expressly provide otherwise.
- Second, a state can follow Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church (1969) and apply “neutral principles of law,” as in “studying deeds, reverter clauses, and general state corporation laws.”
- Third, a state can adopt special statutes on the matter as long as these statutes do not interfere with religious doctrine.