Once again, Savannah is at the epicenter of the critical constitutional issue of separation of church and state, with far reaching implications to many religious organizations and their members throughout the country.
The recent petition of Christ Church to the U.S. Supreme Court sets the stage for a landmark decision testing the wall of separation between church and state. The issue is whether a national church can claim exclusive rights to local church property based on provisions of national church documents, despite changes in doctrine adopted by the national church.
Since the establishment of the colony, Georgia courts followed the English common law, and consistently held that the right to property in a dispute between a local congregation and a hierarchical, or nationally governed church, was to be decided by a jury based on whether the national church had abandoned or departed from the tenets of faith and practice it held at the time the local church affiliated with it.
This was known as the “departure from doctrine” rule. In 1969, in a landmark case which originated in Savannah involving Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Georgia law, holding that Georgia’s “departure from doctrine” rule violated the First Amendment and that property disputes involving churches could not be based on “ecclesiastical determination.”
Following that decision, Georgia adopted what it styled as a “neutral principles of law” approach to church property ownership, examining four elements relating to church property: Deeds, state statutes, local church charters and national church constitutions.