WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday refused to step into a property dispute between a national denomination and a Maryland congregation that wanted to take millions of dollars of assets when it split from the main church in 1999.
The Prince George’s County Circuit Court had ordered From the Heart Ministries to turn over $38 million to $40 million in property — including two sanctuaries, a school and a Lear jet — to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which said the local church was merely holding the property in trust.
But the Maryland Court of Appeals ordered a new hearing for the Temple Hills church, saying the lower court was wrong to grant summary judgment in the case.
AME Zion, with the support of several other churches, argued to the high court that a new hearing would open it to an “unconstitutional intrusion into the denomination’s self-governance” in violation of the First Amendment.
But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the appeals court ruling standing.
“That probe, that inquiry would be a very subjective inquiry” that would inevitably veer into religious issues, said Thomas Starnes, a lawyer for AME Zion.
“From our perspective, a civil court cannot conduct such an inquiry consistent with the First Amendment,” he said.
An attorney for From the Heart disagreed, saying there is no First Amendment issue in the case.
“This is basically a property law dispute under Maryland property law that has to be decided on the particular and unique facts of the case,” said Philip Horton, a lawyer with From the Heart. “There is nothing special about it.”
But the unaffiliated religious organizations that filed a brief in support of AME Zion said the case is about more than just property rights.
“We’re also talking about how denominations can function,” said Douglas Laycock, a lawyer with the religious groups.
Laycock said these kinds of disputes are not uncommon, which made it all the more important for the high court to rule in the case.
“There must be at least one a year in state supreme court,” he said. “There’s a fair number that settle too.”
The case will now return to trial court for further investigation.
“There has only been a limited amount of discovery (to date),” said Starnes, adding that AME Zion will “do our utmost to assure that that (First Amendment violations) doesn’t happen.”
John and Diana Cherry began From the Heart as a storefront ministry in 1981 in Marlow Heights. From those original 24 members, the church now claims more than 26,000 members.
Published reports said Cherry decided to split from the denomination after hearing a voice he believed was God telling him, “Get out of Zion.”