In re Episcopal Church Cases (2009) 45 Cal.4th 467

A local church disaffiliated itself from a larger, general church with which it had been affiliated.  Both the local church and the general church claimed ownership of the local church building and the property on which the building stands.  The parties asked the courts to resolve this dispute.  The California Supreme Court granted review primarily to decide how the secular state courts should resolve disputes over church property.

If resolution of the property dispute involves a doctrinal dispute, the Court defers to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the doctrinal point. But to the extent it can resolve the property dispute without reference to church doctrine, it uses what the United States Supreme Court has called the “neutral principles of law” approach.  Under that approach, the Court considers sources such as the deeds to the property in dispute, the local church’s articles of incorporation, the general church’s constitution, canons, and rules, and relevant statutes, including statutes specifically concerning religious property.

Applying the neutral principles of law approach, the Court held that the general church, not the local church, owned the property in question.  It affirmed the Court of Appeal, which reached the same conclusions, although not always for the same reasons.