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New Saint John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Inc. v. Collier

June 9, 2008

NEW SAINT JOHN CHRISTIAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, INC. AND 7TH EPISCOPAL DISTRICT OF THE CHRISTIAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, INC., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
WILLIAM COLLIER, MILDRED COLLIER, PAULINE COLLIER, KENNETH COVINGTON, DOROTHY BEEKS-ELLISON, AND DENISE BROWNING, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Camden County, Docket No. C-161-02.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted December 17, 2007

Before Judges Parrillo and Graves.

This case, involving an intra-church property dispute, returns to us following the remand proceedings we directed in our initial opinion. See New Saint John Christian Methodist Episcopal Church v. Collier, No. A-0689-04 (App. Div. Feb. 9, 2006). In our earlier opinion, we found that the trial judge had "quite properly applied 'neutral principles,'*fn1 in the form of state property law, to this dispute, which involved no 'theological or doctrinal evaluations.'" Id. at 8 (quoting Elmora Hebrew Ctr., Inc. v. Fishman, 125 N.J. 404, 414 (1991)). But we concluded a remand was necessary to determine whether the Book of Discipline (the Book), which had been excluded from evidence, "contained secular rules which became binding on the local church*fn2 when it affiliated with the CME,*fn3 and which are applicable to this dispute." Ibid. We also instructed the trial court to make additional findings of fact regarding ownership of church bank accounts.

Our instructions to the trial court were as follows:

[W]e remand so that the judge may reconsider his otherwise well-considered opinion in light of whatever information the Book contains that bears upon the ownership of the church property as reflected in the various deeds discussed in the judge's opinion. We leave it to the trial judge to decide if any additional testimony is necessary, or if oral argument will suffice. In addition, it is not necessary that the judge restate all of his findings of August 19, 2004. It will be sufficient if his earlier opinion is simply amended to deal with the new information.

In addition, since it appears that plaintiffs are correct that the opinion of August 19, 2004 inadvertently failed to address the issue of church bank accounts, the judge should correct that omission on remand. While it is true, as defendants assert, that the Judgment of September 7, 2004 ordered that the bank accounts belong to the local church, we require some factual findings in that regard in order to perform our review function. R. 1:7-4(a).

[Collier, supra, slip op. at 10.]

At the remand hearing on January 24, 2007, the court determined additional testimony was not needed to resolve the two remanded issues and, following oral argument, it rendered a comprehensive nineteen-page oral decision, which included the following:

The [c]court has considered the provisions of the book of Discipline. Those portions that I believe are relevant, I've commented on their sections, and I find that it does not make a difference in the ruling of the [c]court for the reasons that I've indicated, without repeating them; that the [1983] deed transferred the property unencumbered, . . . without trust language, without any reservation, express or implied, by any other document, in any other manner, and with any other understanding . . . that it should continue as property of the Conference or the District, as the case may be.

It was unequivocal, it was without reservation of any nature, shape or form, the book of Discipline notwithstanding. The book has now been considered in evidence and the result that obtained then obtains now.

The bank accounts. Testimony was that the indigenous members tithed regularly; that whatever the account was when Pastor Wynn came . . . were monies that had been accumulated through their contributions. No question about that. . . .

[Pastor Wynn] testified that he tithed regularly. Now, he was there for seven weeks. What did he tithe? He said $150 a week . . . seven times ...


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