OK law not okay with church leaders

Roman Catholic and Episcopal Bishops and leaders of the Presbyterian and Pentecostal Holiness churches told the Oklahoma House yesterday that legislation that would require the owners of church properties and trusts to state clearly on their deeds the exact terms ownership is a bad idea.They said it would violate long-held legal principles and lead the state into court entangling them in the minutiae of church polity and theology.

The bill arose out of a dispute between a Tulsa church and the Presbyterian Chruch, USA. The congregation left the PCUSA and sued to keep their church building and property. A Tulsa judge ruled against them. The congregation later settled with the denomination, buying the property for $1.75 million.

Religious leaders say that if the law passes the state will end up always siding with the local congregation creating a de-facto state preference for a certain type of church polity. This will make the state a direct party to lawsuits since the state will be dragged into court as both denominations and members within a congregation in conflict sue to determine who represents a legitimate congregation in the eyes of Oklahoma law.

Michael McNutt of the Oklahoman reports:

The measure could result in state officials meddling in matters of congregational employment and membership, said the Rt. Rev. Edward Konieczny, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, in a statement read by his chief of staff, the Rev. Jose McLaughlin.

Also, the measure — which was proposed during this year’s session until its author, Rep. Pam Peterson, pulled it — could result in several congregations filing lawsuits against the state, Konieczny said.

The Most Rev. Eusebius Beltran, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, said in a statement to the House Judiciary Committee that the measure “would be a very serious infringement on the Catholic Church of Oklahoma and would violate the separation of Church and State and the long-standing traditions of our country.”

Peterson says the leaders misunderstand the intent of the bill.

There is a misunderstanding of House Bill 1725, said Rep. Pam Peterson, author of the bill. The legislation would simply require the owner of church property to be clearly stated in the deed or trust agreement, so it is understood who owns the land.

The legislation has been targeted by many church leaders across the state, who claim the bill is trying to take away a national denomination’s right to own land on which a church is situated.

Peterson claims the bill is neutral when it comes to who owns the land but would bring uniformity to the law as it applies to the ownership and transfers of all Oklahoma property, regardless of who owns the property.

But State Sen. Gary Stanislawski, R-Tulsa, who authored the Senate version of the same bill stated clearly that local congregation always takes precedence under this legislation, saying last February that his bill is designed to “define property rights in Oklahoma so that if people in Oklahoma, whether in a church or some other nonprofit, sign on a deed for the land, they own the land. If they ever separate from the parent organization, they own the land.”

In February, leaders of the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, United Methodist, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and Presbyterian denominations, along with the Oklahoma Conference of Churches wrote a letter in opposition to the proposal.

Here is a video from last February discussing the bill in more detail:

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