3797 N. Steele Blvd., Ste 380 | Fayetteville, AR 72703

Arkansas Property Code #5

I’m skipping adverse possession, because I’m not up to doing the full thing right now, and haven’t figured out yet how I want to break it up. So our next section is A.C.A. 18-11-102 and 18-11-103. This section is entitled Property of Religious Societies.

Fairly straightforward, 18-11-201 provides that if you deed 40 acres or less to a trustee of a religious society, for a “meeting house, burial ground, campground, or residence for their preacher, shall descend in trust to subsequent trustees, according to the rules of the society.

18-11-202, I’m just going to quote since it’s so short: “The trustee or trustees of any religious society shall have the same power to defend and prosecute suits at law or in equity and do all other acts for the protection, improvement, and preservation of trust property as individuals may do in relation to their individual property.”

Nothing surprising there, and these have been around 60 some years. Obviously not too much litigation, as there’s only one case and it touches them tangentially. When you read these cases you’ll see courts tread lightly around them because of the religious issues. There are two cited in the annotations to 18-11-201. One, Arkansas Annual Conference of the AME Church v. New Direction Praise and Worship Center involves a deed to a local church which subsequently joined a larger church organization. They then split, and the larger organization tried to claim the property. The court ruled for the local church, saying that was who the deed was to, but went to great pains to make it clear that it was not touching the issue on religious grounds, setting for this rule (I’ve removed the cites):

Both the United States Constitution and the Arkansas Constitution prohibit the courts from becoming involved in disputes between members of a religious organization that are “essentially religious in nature,” because the resolution of such disputes “is more properly reserved to the church.”

Nonetheless, “[i]t is unquestionably the duty of the courts to decide legal questions involving the ownership and control of church property.” As the United States Supreme Court has noted, “[t]he State has an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes, and in providing a civil forum where the ownership of church property can be determined conclusively.” Yet, even when a property dispute is involved, courts must refrain from settling the dispute “on the basis of religious doctrine and practice” and instead apply only “neutral principles of law.”

While “it is impermissible for the civil courts to substitute their own interpretation of the doctrine of a religious organization for the interpretation of the religious organization,” a court may nonetheless have to examine documents of a partially religious nature, such as church constitutions, in resolving a property dispute. For example, a court can look at “(1) the language of the deeds; (2) the terms of the local church charters; (3) the state statutes governing the holding of church property; and (4) the provisions in the constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property” in determining whether a local church or one of its governing bodies holds title to church property.

The United States Supreme Court has acknowledged that applying the neutral-principles approach to an examination of documents relating to a religious institution is not “wholly free of difficulty.” In performing its examination, the court must be careful to scrutinize such documents in “purely secular terms,” deferring to the religious institution itself for the resolution of doctrinal issues.

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