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Judge tosses lawsuit from Wisconsin church facing land loss after leaving denomination

The judge didn’t reach the church’s arguments that the land grab violated multiple constitutional protections, finding its state law claims were weak enough to dismiss its complaint.

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — A Wisconsin federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit from a local church challenging a nearly 100-year-old provision in state law it says will cost the congregation their land for voting to leave a conference of Methodist churches.

The Hebron Community Methodist Church of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, sued in Madison federal court in January in an attempt to get the court to say that the disputed Wisconsin statute is unconstitutional and prevent the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church from using the law to stake an ownership claim to the church’s lands after its members voted to leave the denomination.

The 1923 amendment to the larger 1849 Wisconsin act incorporating the Methodist Episcopal Church essentially holds that if any local Methodist church or society becomes defunct or dissolved, rights, privileges and title to the church’s property is vested with the church’s conference.

The provision is tied to the history of the founding of the Methodist denomination in England in the 1700s. Fearing further retaliation or imprisonment for British Methodists practicing their religion, their founder and leader John Wesley created the “model deed” or trust clause to establish places of worship without running afoul of a British law that prohibited five or more people to meet in worship unless they did so by the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England.

Today, in that spirit, assets of Methodist churches are held in trusts owned by the local churches and entities known as conferences. This can create a tangled legal web of ownership interests complicating when a church like Hebron wants to leave the denomination.

The church claims the conference’s belief of property ownership is wrong and that the disputed Wisconsin law is unconstitutional in multiple ways, not the least because it tilts in favor of the Methodist denomination in property disputes regardless of language in a property deed and punishes a local church by taking its property when it decides to leave the denomination.

But those constitutional claims—including under the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, and substantive due process—were not even addressed by U.S. District Judge William Conley in his Monday order dismissing the church’s amended lawsuit because the church had not proven it had a viable claim to ownership of its property anyway.

Under established judicial standards in cases involving laws controlling religious property which instruct courts to look at church charters and constitutions, deeds and other “neutral principles of law,” the Barack Obama appointee said the neutral principles of law here “all point in the same direction: under any of the neutral principles of law cited, Hebron clearly would not retain ownership of that property.” (Emphasis in original).

In large part because another Wisconsin law in the same chapter as the disputed statute outlining the general property rule for all Wisconsin religious organizations also would require Hebron to relinquish its property to the denomination upon disaffiliation or dissolution, Conley felt the legal scheme clearly sided with the Methodist conference even if the disputed statute was found unconstitutional.

“Either way, Hebron would lose ownership of all church property. Hebron does not argue that all statutes regulating church property are unconstitutional—only statutes which single out particular religions. Thus, even if the statute Hebron so strenuously challenges were found unconstitutional, Hebron would still lose title to the property,” Conley said.

Conley said his analysis could have stopped there, but he continued to parse out how the church had not sufficiently pleaded its case under other neutral principles. These included an express trust provision in the denomination’s Book of Discipline that Hebron adopted as its governing document at its inception in 1963 and Wisconsin’s common law of trust.

The judge said that “while the court does ‘construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff,’ there is quite simply no legal basis for Hebron’s claim of ownership to prevail under Wisconsin law, whether or not the challenged statute is unconstitutional.”

As for the lawsuit’s constitutional questions, Conley adopted the U.S. Supreme Court and Seventh Circuit’s well-worn guidance to let pass any properly presented constitutional question if there is some other ground upon which the case can be disposed.

“Here, the constitutional question is entirely irrelevant to whether Hebron could get relief, making a deep dive into the constitutionality of [the disputed statute] highly disfavored,” Conley wrote, though he said the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s congregation-specific property statutes “certainly raises interesting questions.”

When asked for comment on the court’s ruling, Dan Dalton, an attorney with the Detroit office of Dalton & Tomich who represented Hebron Community Methodist Church, said on Monday that “we are disappointed the court declined to look at the constitutional issues and we are evaluating our next steps.”

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