The Supreme Court decision in Presbyterian Church in the United States v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969), denied the authority of a civil court to interpret church doctrine when deciding whether local churches or the general church hierarchy owned church property. The First Amendment prohibited courts from determining religious matters, finding it inconsistent with the First Amendment's concept of separation of church of state.

Churches tried to withdraw from national church on doctrinal grounds

Two Savannah, Georgia, churches had sought to withdraw from the Presbyterian Church in the United States on doctrinal grounds. Applying Georgia’s departure-from-doctrine standard, which allowed a jury to decide whether the national church had departed from its original doctrines, a jury had awarded the property to the local churches. The trial judge issued an injunction against the general church; the Supreme Court of Georgia affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded.

Supreme Court said courts could not determine doctrinal matters

Writing for the unanimous Court, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. acknowledged the state’s “legitimate interest in resolving property disputes” through civil courts but cited Watson v. Jones (1871) to note the “[s]pecial problems” that arise when such controversies involved “church doctrine and practice.” Watson established that civil courts had “no role in determining ecclesiastical questions in the process of resolving property disputes.” Permitting such a determination would inject courts into determining religious matters, which the First Amendment prohibited.

Identifying Georgia’s departure-from-doctrine standard as a creation of state rather than church law, Brennan decided that it “can play no role in any future judicial proceedings.” In a concurring opinion, John Marshall Harlan II said that this decision would not prohibit courts from enforcing a will or deed that explicitly laid down requirements that a church had violated.

On remand (225 Ga. 259 [1969]), the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that Georgia’s entire implied trust theory on behalf of the general church must fall. Finding no other basis for a trust in favor of the general church, it accordingly awarded legal title to the local churches.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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