ANNAPOLIS – In a courtroom packed with as many clerical collars as business suits, Maryland’s highest court heard arguments Thursday over whether a sect that leaves a parent church can assume ownership of its property.
From the Heart Ministries, located in Temple Hills, told the Court of Appeals it owns $39 million in assets it built while a congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The AME Zion Church countered that its Book of Discipline, the bylaws that govern its congregations, prohibits members from claiming church assets as their own.
From the Heart and its pastor, the Rev. John A. Cherry, sued the AME Zion Church in 1999, claiming the assets it acquired while a member of the parent church no longer belonged to AME Zion after From the Heart became independent.
The Prince George’s Circuit Court ruled against From the Heart, ordering it to return the assets to the AME Zion Church. That decision was overturned in an April ruling by Maryland Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.
The oral argument before the Court of Appeals Thursday got off to a contentious start when Judge Dale R. Cathell asked From the Heart attorney Jack Lipson if the group had engaged in a campaign to influence the court.
Cathell mentioned the April protests – when From the Heart members surrounded the appeals court building waving signs – and more than 40 letters the judges have received from From the Heart members recently. Some of the letters, the judge said, warned, “We will remember in November.”
Lipson said there was no concerted effort by From the Heart to intimidate the judges. No protestors appeared at the courthouse Thursday.
James E. Ferguson II, an attorney for AME Zion, argued The Book of Discipline clearly denotes an agreement between AME Zion and its member churches. He asked the judges to view the document as a formal contract, which has rules prohibiting Cherry from calling church property his own.
But From the Heart argued that it made its independence clear as early as 1991, when it deleted all references to AME Zion in its articles of incorporation. Further, it argued that in order to reclaim its assets, AME should have given notice required by law instructing From the Heart to leave the church.
“We were lulled into complacency,” said Jack Lipson, an attorney for From the Heart. He said that by not formally opposing the congregation’s actions, the church waived its claim to the assets.
The packed courtroom, which filled an hour before proceedings began, consisted mostly of AME Zion supporters. Many of the observers came from other churches. Several denominations filed a joint brief in support of AME Zion, including the United Methodist Church, the Seventh-day Adventist church, the Washington and Easton Protestant Episcopal churches, the American Baptist Churches, the Presbyterian Church and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Supporters of AME Zion said this case extends beyond a simple property dispute.
“It will determine the ability of religious denominations to set their own governing principles and live by them,” said Bishop George W. Walker, president of AME Zion’s Board of Bishops.
The AME Zion Church evolved from what is now known as the United Methodist Church, which was founded more than 200 years ago in New York. It now boasts more than 1 million members and more than 3,000 congregations nationwide.
Cherry founded From the Heart in 1981, first meeting with 24 members in a furniture store. Since then, his congregation has grown to more than 24,000 people.