Smith Chapel wins court decision over AME Zion

By Chris Berendt

June 27, 2014

A small church congregation in the Garland area won a court decision Thursday to retain the rights to its property over the AME Zion denomination, a victory that could be the catalyst for similar cases in Sampson and surrounding counties.

A jury in Sampson County Civil Court ruled Thursday in favor of Smith Chapel Church, which was sued by AME Zion for the rights to the church and property. The jury ruled that the local church, while it observed the denominational customs under AME Zion, was not in a relationship with the denomination with respect to their real property.

AME Zion, represented by Anita Davis Pearson of Wake County, informed the court it would be appealing the decision. Senior Resident Judge Doug Parsons presided over Thursday’s proceedings.

Attorney Justin Lockamy, with Warrick & Bradshaw of Clinton, represented Smith Chapel, in the case. Following the verdict he said members of the Smith’s congregation were “relieved” with the jury’s decision, but said he doubted the issue was “fully over yet.” Lockamy first became involved with the case a little more than a year ago, however the situation dates back well before then.

The church was previously believed to be affiliated with the AME Zion denomination, property and all, however some of the approximately 50 members of the church actively questioned the extent of that relationship in recent years.

“Over the past couple years, certain members of the congregation began believing that the denomination had no claim to the property, despite what they had been told for years by pastors who were assigned to their church,” stated Lockamy. “The overwhelming majority of the people in the congregation were on the side I was arguing for — for local church control of the property.”

Any church that is “connectional” in nature, be it Methodist, AME Zion, Catholic or otherwise, “it is usually presumed that the denomination has a trust interest in any of the property of its member churches,” Lockamy pointed out.

“Some had believed for a long time that they were not a part of Zion with respect to their church property,” the attorney said. “They adopted all the customs, the procedures and worship of the AME Zion Church, but they insisted that the church did not belong to (AME Zion).”

A little over a year ago, when much of the congregation agreed AME Zion should have no more claim, they prevented the pastor assigned by AME Zion to preach at Smith Chapel from entering the sanctuary. That event boiled into civil litigation brought by AME Zion over who owned the church and its property.

On Thursday, jurors said Smith Chapel did practice AME Zion worship but the property and the church itself was separate.

“Because of that, the denomination cannot have any claim over the property,” Lockamy explained, “despite what their internal rules might say.”

The property will remain with the trustees of Smith Chapel Methodist Church, which the local congregation was known as under a 1960s deed. While there are still some “hiccups” to be fully resolved surrounding the church’s name, Lockamy noted, Thursday’s decision clears the way for some of that resolution to take place.

“The biggest roadblock for the congregation has been removed,” he stated, “and now they are free, if they wish, to withdraw from the AME Zion Church and not lose their place of worship if they so choose. Or, they’re perfectly free to stay. It’s their property to do what they want.”

While there is a history of churches who have tried to do what Smith Chapel Church accomplished Thursday, those attempts have often been unsuccessful.

“The prior cases have not been too kind to local churches. It is rare for a court or a jury to do this kind of thing,” Lockamy pointed out. “The facts had to be pretty clear for them to make that decision, to go against what usually was the default rule that the denomination would have some sort of ownership interest.”

Various church records were presented during the case that showed where the church either used or did not use the title of AME Zion in its name over the years. A number of deeds were also presented by Lockamy as evidence against AME Zion ownership. There is a certain language required by the denomination’s discipline for any of those deeds, which was not contained in Smith Chapel’s.

“There was repeated evidence that all deeds for Smith Chapel were lacking this language,” he asserted.

The first church-related case Lockamy has been involved with, Smith Chapel and its favorable decision could very well be the spark for action by other church congregations in the same sort of predicament.

“It’s been communicated to me by some members of the congregation that there are other churches that have been in similar positions … that were looking to this to determine whether or not they should try to make any claim of ownership superior to those denominations,” Lockamy remarked. “I know there are a number of folks who have been watching this, but as to what it will mean for the local AME Zion denomination, I’m not sure.”

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.