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Pennsylvania church law is rooted in the history of the Commonwealth, described by the United States District Court as “the woods to which Penn led the Religious Society of Friends to enjoy the blessings of religious liberty.” United States v. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Religious Soc. of Friends, 753 F. Supp. 1300, 1306 (1990).   As such, Pennsylvania state law shows great deference to churches and other religious organizations in all aspects of faith, worship, and sacred practice.  Over the years, however, Pennsylvania courts have increasingly asserted the dominance of secular law over the spiritual in all matters not directly touching the freedom to believe and the religious practice of churches.

CORPORATE STRUCTURE

Churches in Pennsylvania are legally organized as nonprofit corporations that hold legal title to their assets.  There are no “religious corporations” as recognized in other states.  Rather, a church forms a nonprofit corporation governed by the Nonprofit Corporation Law of 1988, 15 Pa. C.S. §5101- 6145; In Re First Baptist Church of Spring Mill, 2011 WL 2302540, 22 A.3d 1091 (Pa. Commw. Ct., 2011).  These statutes govern the internal operation of the nonprofit corporation, but the law contains a specific provision that “if and to the extent canon law or similar principles applicable to a corporation incorporated for religious purposes sets forth provisions relating to the government and regulation of the affairs of the corporation that are inconsistent with [the statutes] the canon law or similar provisions shall control.” 15 Pa. C.S. §5107.

The nonprofit corporation is formed by filing Articles of Incorporation (15 Pa. C.S. §5306) and its internal operations are governed by its Bylaws. The nonprofit corporation is a Member Organization, and the qualifications for members are defined by the Bylaws. It is governed by Directors, who may either be elected or appointed, and who have a fiduciary duty to the organization (15 Pa. C.S. §5712). 

SECULAR NON-INTERFERENCE AND THE DEFERENCE RULE

Pennsylvania follows “the deference rule” concerning disputes within a church or its corporation.   This most often applies to situations where factions within a church bring their dispute to the courts, or where a member (or one claiming membership) claims that rights within the organization were violated or denied.  Where a dispute concerns questions of discipline, faith, ecclesiastical rule, custom or law, the civil court must defer to the highest ecclesiastical authority to which the question has been carried.  “The law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect. The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned.”  Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, 507 Pa. 255 (1985).

When there is a dispute as to what is “the highest ecclesiastical authority” the secular court will decide that question, and then defer to that body. Atterberry v. Smith, 104 Pa. Commw. 550 (1987).

Courts also have no jurisdiction to decide any cases concerning the employment at the church of its ministers.  A minister is determined by “the person’s actual functions within the church” and is not based on titles.  A “minister” for this purpose is one whose “primary duties include teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order and worship.”  Cooper v. Church of St. Benedict, 2008 Pa. Super. 171 (2008) (where a musical director was considered a minister).

PROPERTY ISSUES

All property that is titled to the Nonprofit Corporation is restricted in use to its charitable and religious purposes.  This principle is interpreted very broadly, which is often important in zoning and property tax matters.  Church of the Saviour v. Zoning Hearing Board of Tredyffrin Township, 130 Pa. Commw.. 542 (1989) (professional counseling at church building said to be “an integral part of the church’s activities.”)

If the corporation ceases to function or is dissolved, the property (or the proceeds of its sale) are held in trust to carry out the original intent and purpose of the entity, or is vested in another body designated for the same uses.

Disputes concerning the ownership of property are not governed by “the deference rule.”  Rather, they are decided by applying neutral principles of secular law. Most often, this has arisen in disputes between a national denomination and a local church as to the ownership of the church building.   In such cases, Pennsylvania law will look first to the recorded deed.  If a hierarchical denomination claims the property it must show “clear and unambiguous documentary evidence or conduct on the part of the congregation evincing an intent to create a trust in favor of the hierarchical church body.”  Orthodox Church of America v. Pavuk, 114 Pa. Commw. 176 (1988).

LIABILITY ISSUES

Pennsylvania abolished the doctrine of charitable immunity in 1967, meaning that churches are subject to civil suits, as are other charitable organizations.    Tifereth Israel Synagogue of Mount Carmel, Pa.., Inc., 425 Pa. 106 (1967).  Therefore, it is important for churches to carry liability insurance coverage to protect their assets.  In the place of charitable immunity, the Pennsylvania legislature enacted a series of statutes, including the Volunteer Protection Act, the Directors’ Liability Act, the Good Samaritan Immunity law and the Volunteers-in-Public-Service law. Each of these laws is generally intended to limit the exposure of volunteers to liability relating to their volunteer activities. Each law has unique exceptions, so there are gaps in the statutory protection.

CONFIDENTIALITY ISSUES

Pennsylvania law recognizes rights of confidentiality within religious organizations, but only within defined limits.  Statements made in confidence to a clergyman are confidential, and the clergyman “shall not be compelled or allowed” to disclose that information.  42 Pa. C.S. § 5943.  This statute only applies to statements made “in secrecy and confidence to a clergyman in the course of his duties.”  Courts have limited confidentiality to confessions made to seek the forgiveness of God, and not to counseling by clergy. Commonwealth v. Patterson, 392 Pa. Super. 331 (1990).

Church records, being records of nonprofit corporations, are available to its members on a limited basis.  A member can see the “records of proceedings” of the corporation, which means only the authorized minutes of official actions of board of directors.  

A church is subject to a civil subpoena.  It cannot avoid production of relevant records by declaring them confidential according to their religious rules, or even by putting them in a place which is designated by canon law as a “secret archive.”  Hutchison v. Luddy, 414 Pa. Super. 138 (1992).

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

Pennsylvania recognizes the sanctity of freedom of religion, but limits that to the freedom of religious conviction and practice.   Where the church’s convictions differ from the secular laws, the secular law will control in most circumstances.

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