Can a Church Refuse to Sell Property Because of a Buyer’s Religion?

Here’s a bleg for you law and religion fans. Rod Dreher had an interesting post last week about the continuing division in the Episcopal Church over doctrinal issues. Several parishes, and even a few dioceses, if I’m not mistaken, have sought to leave the Episcopal Church because of the church’s liberal stand on issues like homosexuality. These parishes typically affiliate with Anglican bishops who remain committed to traditional doctrine.

Often, the departing congregations wish to maintain control of church property. Because of the way the relevant deeds and other legal documents are written, though, and because of the church autonomy principle, the congregations typically lose. Rod reports that the Episcopal Church has spent about $26 million litigating all the cases–an astounding figure, when you think about it.

All this is straightforward, legally speaking. But Rod’s post raises an issue I hadn’t thought about. When a departing parish in Binghamton, New York, sought to purchase its church building for $150,000, the Episcopal Church refused to sell. Apparently, the Church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, has adopted a policy of refusing to sell church property to any group that intends to affiliate with an Anglican bishop. The Episcopal Church has sold off property to Baptists, Methodists, Jews, and Muslims, but not Anglicans. In the Binghamton case, the Church eventually sold the property to a mosque which paid only $50,000 for it–one-third what the departing congregation had offered to pay.

So, here’s the question. Is it legal for a church to refuse to sell church property solely because of the buyer’s religion? You’d think there would be an easy answer, but I haven’t been able to find one. The federal civil rights laws prohibit religious discrimination in residential sales, but that wouldn’t apply to church buildings. Some state civil rights laws apply to commercial property, but there are exemptions for religious groups–and anyway, these cases don’t involve commercial property, either. In the federal employment anti-discrimination laws, a specific exception exists for religious bodies that discriminate on the basis of religion, and a couple of years ago, in the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution allows religious bodies to discriminate with respect to the employment of ministers. Would there be an analogous carve-out from non-discrimination principles for churches that do not wish to sell their sanctuaries to religious rivals? Any ideas?

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One response to “Can a Church Refuse to Sell Property Because of a Buyer’s Religion?

  1. Douglas Laycock

    You don’t need a carve out if no law prohibits the church’s action in the first place.

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