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12/11/90 KENNETH PRINCE v. JOHN FIRMAN

December 11, 1990

KENNETH PRINCE, ET AL., APPELLANTS
v.
JOHN FIRMAN, ET AL., APPELLEES



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Steffen W. Graae, Trial Judge

Rogers, Chief Judge, and Steadman and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman

The question presented in this appeal is whether a District of Columbia statutory provision that church property revert to the contributors of the property upon dissolution of the church violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. *fn1 The provision in question, D.C. Code § 29-911 (1981), is part of a chapter dealing with "Religious Societies" and reads:

Upon the dissolution of any society or congregation the estate and property of such society or congregation shall revert back to the persons, their heirs, and assigns who may have given or contributed to the purchase of or payment for the same, according to their respective rights.

We hold that the provision is constitutional.

I

Plaintiff-appellants, two of six trustees of the Bethany Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. (the "Church"), sued the four remaining trustees of the Church, alleging, in pertinent part, that the defendant trustees failed to act properly with respect to the distribution of Church assets following the Church membership's vote to dissolve. *fn2 Specifically, the complaint stated:

10. The membership of the Church has voted to dissolve and to distribute its assets. The Church's building has been sold, and there were cash assets in excess of one million dollars to be distributed. Neither the membership nor the Trustees have made any attempt to ascertain to whom such remaining assets should be distributed in accordance with the law of the District of Columbia.

11. The membership has adopted a plan for the distribution of the Church assets, under which plan assets are to be and have been distributed to members and other persons, who under the law of the District of Columbia, are not the rightful recipients of those . In addition the distribution plan allows and encourages the membership to take for their own personal benefit assets of the Church which have been designated for distribution to charitable organizations.

12. In violation of their obligations and duties as Trustee, the defendants have failed and refused to take any action to stop the membership from carrying out the improper distribution of assets.

Appellees moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to D.C. Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12(b)(6) (1989). During argument on the motion, the trial court itself raised for the first time the issue of the constitutionality of section 29-911. In granting the motion with prejudice, the court ruled that the section was unconstitutional and could not be enforced, and that adjudicating the complaint would "get [the court] into a matter of ecclesiastical government."

From the proceedings on appeal, we understand that appellants have abandoned any claims set forth in their complaint or relief sought thereunder except insofar as such claims or relief may be founded upon the provisions of section 29-911. We therefore deal solely with the issue of the constitutionality of section 29-911.

II

At the outset, we note that we deal here with a challenge to the constitutionality of an Act of Congress. When we are required to pass on the constitutionality of an Act of Congress, we assume one of the "'gravest and most delicate,'" Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448, 472, 100 S. Ct. 2758, 65 L. Ed. 2d 902 (1980) (plurality opinion) (citation omitted), duties we are called on to perform. See Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. (6 Cranch) 87, 128, 3 L. Ed. 162 (1810) (Marshall, C.J.) ("the question, whether a law be void for its repugnancy to the constitution, is, at all times, a question of much delicacy, which ought seldom, if ever, to be decided in the affirmative in a doubtful case"). "'Every possible presumption is in favor of the ...


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