Michael McConnell on Church Property Disputes
Date: April 24th, 2016

What happens to church property when a congregation decides to divorce itself from its denomination?  Does the real estate and other forms of property remain with the local congregation, or does the denomination have claim over all that stuff?  While the answer to those questions might simply be “whoever bought it in the first place,” the reality is rarely so clear-cut and many of these cases end up in state courts.  Prof. Michael McConnell — the Richard and Mallery Professor of Law at Stanford University — sets the issue of church property ownership in historical context to help us understand how such cases are resolved today.  We journey back to the 19th century when the “English Rule” was often used to settle disputes between local congregations and their larger denominational structures.  Such an approach tended to favor larger, more hierarchical denominations over the congregations.  However, in the late 1800s, with the Watson v Jones case, jurisprudence on this matter began to change.  Prof. McConnell leads us through these changes and up to the Jones v Wolf decision in 1979, laying out the various issues that came under contention along the way.  Michael then makes an argument in favor of “strict neutral principles” of resolving property disputes, noting that this mitigates the need for courts to meddle in, or determine, what it proper church doctrine and organization.  He contrasts this approach with “hybrid” approaches that oftentimes yield greater uncertainty in ownership and discourage investment.  Several examples of actual court cases are referenced throughout the interview.  Recorded: April 13, 2016.


Prof. Michael McConnell’s bio at Stanford Law School.

Constitutional Law Center at Stanford.

On Resolving Church Property Disputes,” by Michael McConnell and Luke Goodrich (at SSRN).

Religion and the Law, edited by Michael McConnell, John Garvey, and Thomas Berg.

Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought, edited by Michael McConnell, Robert Cochran, and Angela Carmella.

Watson v Jones (1872), Supreme Court case mentioned in podcast.

Jones v Wolf (1979), Supreme Court case mentioned in podcast.


Matthew Franck on Hosanna-Tabor and Ministerial Exemptions.

Jordan Lawrence on Religious Property Cases.

John Inazu on the Four Freedoms, Religious Liberty, and Assembly.

David Cortman on Religious Liberty Updates.

Mike Donnelly on Homeschooling.

Matthew Franck on Hobby Lobby and Religious Freedom Jurisprudence.

2 Responses to “Michael McConnell on Church Property Disputes”

  1. Michael McBride says:

    Nice interview Tony.

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