Monday, March 26, 2012

Surprising Legal Opinion...

Wading into sensitive church-state territory, a Missouri judge has ruled in favor of an independent-minded Catholic church that claims ownership of its property and autonomy from the Archdiocese of St. Louis.  The ruling upholds St. Stanislaus' ownership of its property and its right to craft bylaws that limit the authority of the Roman Catholic Church over its governance.

Judge Hettenbach relied on so-called "neutral principles of law" -- secular documents like deeds, constitutions and bylaws that govern individual churches as organizations. In using the neutral principles approach, Hettenbach rejected the traditional approach of civil courts deferring to the internal legal mechanisms of a church.

In 1891, the members of St. Stanislaus formed a corporation under Missouri law in order to secure a loan for a new church building. The civil corporation, called Polish Roman Catholic St. Stanislaus Parish, existed alongside the parish itself. The lay board overseeing the corporation would be allowed to control the property and assets while the archbishop would appoint the board members and pastor.  The corporation's original articles of agreement, signed by the pastor and five parishioners, said the "purpose" of the corporation was, in part, "to maintain a Polish Roman Catholic Church."

Hettenbach's decision rested on his interpretation of whether St. Stanislaus has remained true to that purpose. Specifically, the judge needed to decide if the church's original mission had been undermined by recent revisions to its bylaws. Those changes stemmed largely from a request in 2003 by then-Archbishop Justin Rigali that the church undergo a legal restructuring. When Rigali sent a vicar general to carry that message, his methods served only to deepen the church's resolve to be independent.

Read more here...  You can reference the legal opinion here.

While this ruling does not represent a precedent, since few Roman Catholic parishes have the separate incorporation status that this one did, it does represent a surprising decision on the part of a civil judge to intervene in which is largely an internal dispute.

In most cases, the whole purpose of civil law is to make sure that the churches follow their own rules and, in this case, has determined that the diocese did not.  We shall wait to see if the ruling stands...

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