(Tricia White)

The Delaware Court of Chancery wrestled with whether it had the authority to stop members of the White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church from severing their ties with the ministry overseeing the Presbyterian faith throughout the country and align themselves with a more conservative religious sect.

Church members sought to split from the faith and its governing body, known as the Presbyterian Church(USA), or PC(USA). The members objected to PC(USA)’s decision to adopt a 2011 constitutional amendment permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, according to court documents.

PC(USA)’s regional authority, the New Castle Presbytery, objected to White Clay Creek’s plan to transfer its religious corporation to the more conservative sect but retain the use of the property and building to serve its new denomination. In response, the New Castle Presbytery filed a Chancery Court lawsuit seeking the imposition of a trust to prevent the split.

Attorneys from both sides of the issue debated whether or not the Chancery Court had the authority to resolve the dispute because it was an ecclesiastical dispute, not a civil one.

David C. McBride, a Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor attorney representing the New Castle Presbytery, today told Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster that White Clay Creek is bound to the PC(USA)’s constitution and the court must defer to the ecclesiastical authorities’ decision.

“Granting relief would involve the court in a religious matter,” he said.

However, Lloyd J. Lunceford, an attorney with Taylor Porter, a Baton Rouge, La., law firm, argued that the Chancery Court could grant relief in this case because the dispute was a civil matter.

“It is our view that unlike who has the authority to defrock bishops, the right to disaffiliate is not inherently exclusive or religious in character,” Lunceford said. “Previous case law indicates that it’s a civil matter, a matter of civil liberties having to do with the constitutional right of association.”

For more see an upcoming edition of Delaware Law Weekly