Hierarchical Theory In California Church Disputes
The trial court in Church v. Barker (1981) concluded that the local church corporations held the property in trust for the diocese and Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) under either an implied trust theory or the so-called hierarchical theory. (Barker, supra, 115 Cal. App. 3d at pp. 604-605.)
Under the hierarchical theory "centralized church control over church property supersedes civil law disposition of church property.
Under a hierarchical system of church governance the canons and rules of the general church override any disposition of local church property mandated by state law." (Id. at p. 605.)
The appellate court in Barker held that the trial court erred in relying on hierarchical theory.
"We conclude that California has adopted neutral principles of law as the basis for resolution of church disputes; that use of the hierarchical theory is restricted to doctrinal and ecclesiastical controversies and does not extend to property disputes; that property disputes between ecclesiastical claimants, like property disputes between temporal claimants, must be resolved by neutral principles of law." (Barker, supra, 115 Cal. App. 3d at p. 615.)
The Barker court further held that the trial court erred in applying an implied trust theory.
"In essence, the theory of implied trust rests on the proposition that contributions and gifts to the local church are impliedly given in trust for the benefit of the general church--that the beneficiaries of such contributions are Protestant Episcopalians at large rather than members of the parish.
The theory of implied trust thus rejects the named trustee (the local church) and the known beneficiaries (the local congregation) in favor of distant trustees (the Diocese and PECUSA) and unknown beneficiaries (Protestant Episcopalians in general)." (Barker, supra, 115 Cal. App. 3d at p. 616.)
The Barker court found this theory unsatisfactory because "the implied trust theory almost inevitably puts the civil courts squarely in the midst of ecclesiastical controversies, in that every dispute over church doctrine which produces strongly held majority and minority views forces the court to determine the true implied beneficiaries of the church entities involved.
If the civil courts cannot properly determine which competing group is the bearer of the true faith, they cannot determine for whose benefit title to church property is impliedly held in trust." (Id. at p. 618.)
After concluding that neither hierarchical theory nor an implied trust theory applied, the Barker court turned to the theory of express trust.
"In determining the presence or absence of an express trust in specific church property a court will look at four general sets of facts:
(1) the deeds to the property;
(2) the articles of incorporation of the local church;
(3) the constitution, canons, and rules of the general church;
(4) relevant state statutes, if any, governing possession and disposition of such property." (Barker, supra, 115 Cal. App. 3d at p. 621.)
The Barker court reviewed those four sets of facts for each of the four churches in issue, and concluded that there was an express trust only in one case. (Id. at pp. 625-626.)
The court therefore reversed the judgment as to three of the churches, and affirmed as to one. (Ibid.)