A coalition of members of the Auburn United Methodist Church (AUMC) recently filed a suit in Lee County to allow the congregation to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church (UMC) and establish the congregants as the sole owners of the church's property.
The suit was filed in Lee County by the Auburn Methodist Coalition, Inc., comprised of individual members of AUMC, some of whom serve on various church committees.
The suit claims the Alabama West Florida Annual Conference of the UMC "has seized assets, closing the Church to preclude individuals associated with the Congregation from using the Properties." The UMC allegedly did this due to a "trust clause" found within the UMC Book of Discipline, defined as "the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern themselves."
"The Conference believes that it has the prerogative to take the property of a local Methodist Church without its consent or consideration, relinquishing all rights and control and responsibility of The United Methodist Church over that local church in name, doctrine, governance, liquid assets, or liabilities, including unamortized loans through application of the 'Trust Clause,' within the United Methodist Book of Discipline," the suit reads.
It continues, "[A]n Alabama church does not legally forfeit its property rights simply by joining a national organization. To establish a trust, rather, the national organization must show that a church has satisfied the legal prerequisites to trust creation under 'neutral principles of Alabama law.' The relevant inquiry ordinarily involves a consideration of the applicable denominational constitution, the local church's property deeds, the local church's charter, and principles of state law."
The suit claims court precedent in refusing the UMC's possession of the church property. It also claims that AUMC never agreed to bestow church property to the UMC. According to the lawsuit, the conference installed a "progressive" head pastor in 2016, who appointed like-minded church leadership and prevented a formal process of AUMC disaffiliating from the UMC.
"[A]n examination of the relevant evidence leads to one inescapable conclusion: AUMC has never created a legal trust in favor of the UMC," the suit reads. "Perhaps most importantly, AUMC has never accepted or consented to the UMC's trust claim; quite the opposite, AUMC has always disavowed any UMC property claim."
"[T]he UMC's trust claim fails for three primary reasons: (1) there is no written-and-signed trust instrument, (2) there is no evidence that Auburn United Methodist Church, who owns the Land in question, ever intended to create a trust interest in favor of the UMC, and (3) any trust claimed by the UMC is precluded by Alabama's 'church independence' statute," the suit adds.
The suit seeks the court to compel a church disaffiliation vote and to rule that the members of AUMC hold the sole ownership of the church property. It also requests a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction until the court decides on land ownership.
For years, the United Methodist Church has been embroiled in controversy over denominational acceptance and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage.
The UMC is currently undergoing a significant division as traditional churches are pursuing disaffiliation in light of a growing faction of progressive Methodists pressuring the church to change its Book of Discipline, which sets forth the law and doctrine for UMC churches.
To date, 51.9 % of North Alabama Conference churches have disaffiliated, and around 60% of parishioners have disaffiliated, with others following every month. In addition, according to the financial reports, 2023 giving is expected to be down over 45%, or around $3 million.
Since December 2022, well over 500 Alabama churches have voted to disaffiliate from the UMC.
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