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The Delaware Court of Chancery’s authority to resolve a dispute between members of the White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church who seek to sever their ties with the ministry overseeing the Presbyterian faith throughout the country was debated in a Wilmington courtroom last week.

Members of White Clay Creek, a church formed in the mid-1700s, 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 ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, a denomination that opposes the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers. Under the plan approved by White Clay Creek’s managing council, or session, the members would 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 on both sides debated many issues during the three-hour oral arguments April 30 before Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster. The courtroom was roughly half-filled with White Clay Creek members.

A large portion of the arguments focused on whether the court had the authority to resolve the dispute because it dealt with ecclesiastical, not civil, issues.

David C. McBride, a Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor attorney representing the New Castle Presbytery, told Laster that White Clay Creek is bound to PC(USA)’s constitution and the court must abide by the ecclesiastical authorities’ decision, under the deference doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC.

In Hosanna, a 2012 decision, the high court recognized a ministerial exception by religious institutions to govern their members and affiliate churches.

“In each one of the cases I’ve cited, the court did enter relief to effectuate and enforce the decision of the denomination,” McBride said.

However, Lloyd J. Lunceford, an attorney with Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips, a Baton Rouge law firm, argued that the court is not bound by PC(USA)’s authority because the litigation involved civil, not ecclesiastical, issues.

“It is our view that unlike, for example, who has the authority to defrock a bishop, the right to disaffiliate is not inherently or exclusively 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 constitutionally protected right of association derived from the free speech and assembly clauses of the First Amendment.”

Edward B. Rosenthal of Rosenthal, Monhait and Goddess, another attorney representing White Clay Creek, alleged that under multiple deeds, including one that dates back to 1741, White Clay Creek owns the property where the church sits and can use it even after alignment with another church. Under the deed, Rosenthal said, the property must be used for the benefit of congregation.

“When you look at the deeds, it is clear that the beneficiary is the congregation,” Rosenthal said.

McBride, meanwhile, focused his arguments on whether White Clay Creek could split off from PC(USA).

“If the court was to conclude there is no implied trust, it would give us title to the property by virtue of control of the entity,” he said. “The second thing it would do is allow the Presbytery to do what it couldn’t do before: allow the congregants to remain or return to the congregation.”

Laster said he would consider the litigation’s weightier issues and author an opinion once he has had the time to consider the arguments. He agreed, in a bench ruling, to grant White Clay Creek’s request to strike the lawsuit’s allegations that the members are departing over the gay clergy amendment.

“They describe internal disagreements about church doctrine and theological beliefs,” he said. “I don’t think as a secular court any of that is anything that I have power or the right to pronounce or opine on or take into account.”

The vice chancellor also implored both parties to settle before concluding the oral arguments.

“I always find it very sad when good institutions who are really geared towards doing good works in the world find themselves at loggerheads,” Laster said. “Positive institutions like churches are not in the world to fight internally or with each other. You are in the world to do good works and help people. I think it would be much more beneficial if there were some way you could devote your resources to doing good works in the world.”

Lunceford told Delaware Law Weekly after the hearing that his client is open to reaching a compromise.

“It has always been our preference to settle the matter,” he said. “It is our hope that the regional body reconsiders its position and comes to the table with something doable.”

McBride declined to comment as he was leaving the courtroom.

Jeff Mordock can be contacted at 215-557-2485 or jmordock@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeffMordockTLI.