The Kirk of the Hills, an EPC church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its former PCUSA judicatory, the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma, reached a settlement agreement recently that will involve the congregation paying the presbytery $1.75 million for its own property. Apparently not satisfied with that pound of flesh, PCUSA is going to hold its breath until it turns blue, refusing to sign off on the agreement until the judge in the civil case says the denomination was right all along. According to the Layman Online:
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has notified attorneys in the property dispute between the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma and Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church that it will not consent to a settlement unless the trial court issues a ruling favoring the denomination.
Dean Luthey, a Tulsa lawyer who has handled a number of ecclesiastical disputes, sent the attorneys on both sides this message: “For the PCUSA to sign any release and or dismissal there will need to be an order or judgment memorializing the PCUSA’s success on its motion for summary judgment against the plaintiff reciting both the hiearchical deference ground and the neutral principals ground announced by the Court.”
“This could end up being a deal breaker,” said Tom Gray, co-pastor of the Kirk, now affiliated with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. “The judge failed to finalize a judgment. We made the deal. Now they want to hold the closing on the basis of us having to wait for the judge to complete his judgment.”
Tulsa District Judge Jefferson Sellers has verbally ruled the denomination is the owner of the property. Before writing his order, he invited attorneys to suggest the wording. As a result of that hearing, Sellers decided to change his ruling from a “final judgment” to an “interlocutory adjudication,” allowing for further arguments by the attorneys. During that process, his ruling could change and leave the denomination without its desired “judgment memorializing the PCUSA’s success.”
But Luthey said the final verdict must be rendered – and must be favorable to the PCUSA – before the denomination would sign any release allowing the Kirk to pay $1.75 million for a clear title to its buildings and land.
On the law, PCUSA may have a valid point–I’ll let lawyers reading this weigh in on it. But there is something really distasteful about the denomination inserting itself into an agreement between a church and a presbytery so that, in one jurisdiction, it can get a state judge to pronounce on its arguments in just the way they want him to.
UPDATE: The title on this post should probably read, “attempt to stop settlement.” Jim Berkley points out that the denomination has no authority in this matter, and wonder whether this is simply the blustering of a rogue attack attorney, perhaps at the instigation of a PCUSA bureaucrat:
The denomination has no authority to involve itself in this matter, other than general administrative oversight over a lower governing body. However, even that general oversight responsibility belongs to the synod first and would require some kind of complaint process that would trigger an administrative review of the synod by the General Assembly. What some hyperactive bureaucrat (or agent thereof) thinks or wants is irrelevant.