Appeals court overturns Rogue River church ruling

A Rogue River church that broke with its national denomination over religious differences has received bad news about who holds legal title to the church and its contents.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Phil Arnold ruled in 2010 that Hope Presbyterian Church of Rogue River owned the church structure and its contents under Oregon law.

The trial court sided with Hope Presbyterian, explaining the case should be resolved on "neutral secular principles" of the law, court documents state. But the Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday overturned Arnold's decision, ruling the Presbyterian Church (USA) held title to the property, citing both secular and church doctrine in their decision.

Brian Boisen, pastor of Hope Presbyterian, said Wednesday afternoon that he had not yet had a chance to meet with the church's lawyer and elders in his 100-plus member congregation.

"We need to look at this and figure out what our next step will be," Boisen said.

In 2007, the Rogue River congregation left the Presbyterian Church (USA), and joined a smaller Evangelical Presbyterian Church organization, based outside of Detroit, Mich., he said.

The falling out stemmed from theological disagreements about the basic tenets of Christianity, Boisen said. The PCUSA "was also saying that Jesus of Nazareth was just a neat guy who died a tragic death" and not the literal embodiment of God, he added.

"It was Christological heresy," Boisen said.

Boisen said he also received pressure from his church elders to break with the PCUSA because it had created "loopholes" around "hot button topics" of homosexuality, chastity and fidelity — allowing each ordaining body to determine the issues independently, he said.

"The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has always maintained the Bible is clear on these issues," Boisen said.

Boisen said terminating Hope Presbyterian's affiliation with PCUSA resulted in the larger organization claiming ownership of the Rogue River church.

"That seemed fairly arbitrary, to say, "We own your property," Boisen said, adding some form of the Rogue River church had been in operation for 110 years, and the current church structure was built in 1959.

Arnold ruled that the First Amendment authorizes civil courts to resolve church disputes by application of neutral, secular principles of law. The judge denied reference to the "Book of Order" — which addresses how real and personal property is held within the church hierarchy — and ruled in favor of Hope Presbyterian.

The appeals court ruling which overturns Arnold's decision states in its opinion that the circuit court judge should have considered the provisions contained in the Book of Order.

Arnold should also have considered Hope Presbyterian's amended articles of incorporation, both of which declare that the disputed property is held in trust for the larger church body. The appeals court cited in its opinion Oregon and U.S. Supreme Court cases which involved church property but did not consider church charters. Those cases also supported overturning Arnold's ruling, the opinion said.

"We therefore conclude that, under either the hierarchical-deference or the neutral-principles approach to the resolution of the church property disputes, the record in this case is clear that Hope Presbyterian held its property in trust for the PCUSA," the court said.

Boisen said he did not yet know what Wednesday's ruling will mean for himself or his congregation.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email

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