Heres 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 Im not mistaken, have sought to leave the Episcopal Church because of the churchs 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 casesan astounding figure, when you think about it.
All this is straightforward, legally speaking. But Rods post raises an issue I hadnt 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 Churchs 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 itone-third what the departing congregation had offered to pay.
So, heres the question. Is it legal for a church to refuse to sell church property solely because of the buyers religion? Youd think there would be an easy answer, but I havent been able to find one. The federal civil rights laws prohibit religious discrimination in residential sales, but that wouldnt apply to church buildings. Some state civil rights laws apply to commercial property, but there are exemptions for religious groupsand anyway, these cases dont 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?