Court Orders Megachurch To Surrender Property to AME Zion Church

john-cherry-sr-AME-split.JPGA Maryland appeals court has ruled that a suburban megachurch that
split from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1999 must
relinquish millions of dollars in property back to the denomination.

From the Heart Church Ministries in Temple Hills, Md., must turn
over more than $30 million in property, including three sanctuaries, an
office building and large tract of property owned by the ministry, the
Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in an opinion filed Oct. 28.

Thomas L. McCally, a lawyer for the denomination, views the decision
as significant for the individual church and others with similar
hierarchical structures.

“For the denomination and for the AME Zion parties, this has always
been about … more than real estate,” said McCally, who is based in
Washington.

“This is about enforcing its Book of Discipline, enforcing its
polity, its practices and the way it governs itself through its Book of
Discipline. … I think this case is significant for other hierarchical
denominations because that is the fundamental issue at play here and
that is how does a hierarchical denomination govern itself.”

The appeals court upheld a lower court decision that the real estate
acquired by the congregation while it was associated with the
denomination still belongs to the denomination. It also upheld the
lower court’s determination that the congregation retained ownership of
personal property.

“The plain language of the trust clause in the Discipline lends …
support to AME Zion’s claim to control From the Heart’s real property,”
wrote Judge Patrick L. Woodward for the Court of Special Appeals. “In
other words, allowing From the Heart to retain its places of worship
and parsonages upon disaffiliation from A.M.E. Zion would violate the
express language of the trust clauses in the Discipline.”

An attorney for From the Heart Ministries did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The court lifted a stay that permitted From the Heart to continue to
use the disputed property. McCally said the congregation is seeking a
higher court’s consideration of whether the stay should be lifted or
retained.

He said all of the congregation’s members did not leave the AME Zion
Church when From the Heart founder John A. Cherry decided to leave the
denomination.

“There’s still Full Gospel AME Zion Church that is worshipping in
rented and borrowed facilities,” he said. “At least one usage will
likely be a place of worship for the surviving Full Gospel AME Zion.”

Source: Pew Froum

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