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In an action filed by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) against a breakaway Orange County, N.Y., congregation, a New York trial judge has ruled that the national church has no claims to any of the land or property of its former parish. Judge John K. McGuirk distinguished the dispute from other recent New York cases that found in favor of a national church, holding that the Presbyterian Church’s system of governance lacked the hierarchical order of the Episcopal Church. The decision may reverberate within New York as other conservative congregations rebel against the Presbyterian Church’s position on such issues as the ordination of gay ministers. The dispute began following the announcement by leaders of the 18-member First Presbyterian Church and Congregation of Ridgeberry of their intention to split from the national church in January 2005, exactly 200 years after the local congregation’s incorporation. Ridgebury (formerly commonly spelled as Ridgeberry) is a community within Wawayanda, N.Y., a town of 6,000 about 75 miles north of New York City. ‘Biblical roots’ issue “I think they believed as a congregation that in order to prosper they had to sever the ties from a denomination that was leaving its biblical roots,” said the church’s attorney, Donald G. Nichol of Walden, N.Y.’s Jacobowitz & Gubits. “Ridgebury is a Bible-believing congregation.” The Presbytery of Hudson River (which under the Presbyterian Book of Order oversees the Congregation of Ridgeberry) asserted that the local church’s property belonged to the Presbyterian Church. “This church was created as a Presbyterian church and throughout the years since the early 1800s all of the members of the church, those who constructed it and contributed to it and built and paved it, all considered themselves to be part of a Presbyterian denomination,” said Frank Patton Jr. of New York’s Patton, Eakins, Lipsett, Holbrook & Savage, who represents the Presbytery of Hudson River. “What happened here is: A very, very, very tiny group of people basically said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be a different kind of church; we don’t like the liberal bent of the national Presbyterian Church, we’re leaving and we’re going to take the property, too,’ ” Patton said. When discussions with local church elders fell through, the presbytery sought injunctive relief protecting its ostensible interest in the church’s assets. The Church at Ridgebury, as the congregation is now known, moved to dismiss. Recently, in The Presbytery of Hudson River of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. Trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of Ridgebury, No. 6144/05 McGuirk granted that motion.

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