Good Shepherd Rosemont and the Pennsylvania courts

An update on this one since there isn’t a whole lot coming out via Dr. David Virtue’s Virtue Online or the Montgomery County court prothonotary’s (clerk’s) office.

There was some discussion about this in the late summer on Kendell Harmon’s website, Titus One Nine. Previously, I blogged here.

“Young Fogey” seems to think that Rosemont is toast. Dr. Virtue doesn’t have an opinion about it on his site yet. I think the Rosemont parish might have switched attorneys at some point this year, and it’s just not clear what is going on. But everyone interested in Pennsylvania religious society law is following this one.

The new Rosemont attorney(s) have to solve the legal dilemma created by the Philadelphia Orphans’ Court in 1993, in my first case, Frederick W. Gundlach v. Peter Laister, 625 A.2d 706 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1993).

This is quick review from the other day, but the holding in Gundlach v. Laister created a system in the denomination where the Bishop basically has the powers of a Roman Catholic bishop. This was probably by accident–not intentional–because the en banc bench was too dopey to realize that not all denominations with bishops grant the bishop the same authority as in the Roman Catholic Church. The cynic in me wants to suggest bias, but maybe it was simply ignorance. More dopery than popery.

Like I mentioned, there is the presence of 15 Pa.C.S. 5107, which the Pennsylvania judges just don’t touch. Neither side in these various parish disputes (besides Rosemont, mostly in Pittsburgh area now) never brief the issue. I think the bishop (hierarchy) side likes the idea of the strongman bishop. It means they win no matter what they say.

The parish side is afraid that if they argue that valid canons can be applied, using “neutral principles”, in the governance of a parish, they lose the ability to argue against any canon they disagree with. In particular, one called the “Dennis Canon“, which creates a trust in favor of the national church in property held by a local parish. It is a red herring, but even more, a boring sidetrack in an already dry subject.

Here is the gist of things:

Say you have a religion where to hold office in a local congregation, the rule of the highest body, The Knowers, says:

” Position of Elder Elite

1) Those chosen must be selected by a vote of all the members present on the first Sunday after the first Monday. The five nominees who have obtained the highest five vote totals shall be Elder Elite-elect. Only upon hopping on the right foot three times, signifying assent to the Holy Beliefs, shall the Elder Elite-elect assume the office of Elder Elite.”

Suppose a bishop or other higher official of this made-up religion comes along and decides that the rule should be hopping on the right foot FOUR times. Not three. Four.

And further, since the Elder Elite had only hopped three times on that first Sunday after the first Monday, their assuming office was invalid. Not invalid because the rule of the highest body in the religion said three, but only because the local bishop said it should be four.

So the local bishop wants control of the property, and the Elder Elite also want to keep control—after all, they hopped three times and it’s undisputed. The highest church body does not want to be involved in the dispute.

Now what?

Well, it you’re Philadelphia Orphans’ Court, which decides questions concerning nonprofit and other charitable organizations, including “religious societies”, you’d probably give in to the Bishop. “After all, he’s the Bishop!”

But realistically, that’s interference with the rules of the denomination. The religion said hop three times on the right foot to show assent, and the bishop says it should be four. But that isn’t what the highest body’s canons say. They say, just three.

Isn’t that “judge-made religion” then if it’s changed to four?

The next thing the court would probably do is say they won’t touch the matter until there is a “ruling” or an “adjudication” on the specific matter by the highest body. But this too, is an interference in religion. After all, the highest body’s canon is clear: hop three times. Why should the denomination have to be corralled by the civil court into coming up with arbitration proceedings that really aren’t anticipated? What gives the civil court judge the power to demand mechanisms of mediation in a denomination’s governance?

What if the highest body (“The Knowers” in this example) decline to be part of the dispute? What if a person with authority to explain what the canon means is too busy stealing money instead, and so is nonresponsive?

In Philadelphia Orphans’ Court, the judges of twenty years ago were incompetents would would humiliate you if you brought them a difficult legal question. Like this one. I don’t know if the situation has improved any in the meantime.

The Montgomery County Orphans’ Court may be no better. I really don’t know about there, either, these days. But I would almost bet that the Rosemont defense is not grounding their legal arguments in any of this. If they’ve followed national canons, who is the Bishop to say they haven’t? And if there is a statute saying that these canons govern all the parishes in the denomination, who are the judges to substitute the Bishop’s reading of the canons with their own as sworn state officials?

If the highest body of a denomination has said “hop three times”, and no one disputes that, yes, they each hopped three, why should there have to be a deference to a rule change by a bishop, or a requirement that there be four hops?

If the state law governs property and governs nonprofit corporations, why can’t the judges decide the case regardless? Applying church canons as incorporated into state law by Title 15, section 5107 of the Pennsylvania Statutes?