(Tricia White)

The White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church and the ministry overseeing the Presbyterian faith throughout the United States have reached a settlement in their dispute over the congregation’s planned departure from the national body, according to an attorney involved in the case.

Under the settlement, White Clay Creek will pay $220,000 to Presbyterian Church (USA), or PC(USA), the faith’s national governing body. In exchange, the PC(USA) will drop its claim that it owns the church building and surrounding property. White Clay Creek will continue to use the grounds when it transfers its religious corporation to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. ECO is a conservative branch of the Presbyterian Church that opposes the admission of gay and lesbian clergy.

The New Castle Presbytery, the PC(USA)’s regional authority, has also agreed to officially dismiss White Clay Creek from the PC(USA) so it can join the ECO.

Reporter Jeff Mordock discusses this case with host Tom Burn of “The Green” on radio station WDDE. Click here to listen to the broadcast

“It had always been the desire of the White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church to avoid litigation in the first place and settle the case reasonably as soon as possible,” said Lloyd J. Lunceford of Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips in Baton Rouge, La., one of the attorneys who represented the Delaware church.

Also representing the church was Edward B. Rosenthal of Rosenthal, Monhait and Goddess. Rosenthal was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment.

Delaware Court of Chancery Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster approved the settlement last week in In re White Clay Creek Presbyterian Church Consolidated Litigation.

Members of White Clay Creek, a church formed in the mid-1700s, sought to split from the PC(USA) and join ECO in objection to the governing body’s decision to adopt a 2011 constitutional amendment permitting the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy, according to court documents. The New Castle Presbytery objected to White Clay Creek’s plan to transfer its religious corporation to ECO.

New Castle Presbytery countered that White Clay Creek must abide by the ecclesiastical authorities’ decision that the property belonged to the faith, not a specific church. The regional body filed a Chancery Court lawsuit seeking the imposition of a trust to prevent the split.

David C. McBride, a Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor attorney representing the New Castle Presbytery, argued before the Chancery Court during April 30 oral arguments that White Clay Creek was bound to PC(USA)’s constitution. He said 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. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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

Laster implored both parties to settle the dispute before he concluded the oral arguments. He said the lawsuit was interfering with the church’s charitable functions.

“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 said Laster’s encouragement helped facilitate a compromise, but noted his client sought to reach a settlement prior to PC(USA) initiating litigation.

“Yes, his plea had an impact, but to varying degrees, because it had always been the desire of White Clay Creek to avoid litigation in the first place,” he said. “Earlier attempts at a negotiated resolution had been stymied by the [New Castle] Presbytery’s initial demands, but both parties were able to negotiate in good faith and reach a fair and mutually acceptable outcome.”

Lunceford added that he expects White Clay Creek to put aside its differences with PC(USA) and work together to advance the goals of the Presbyterian faith.

“White Clay Creek wishes its former colleagues in the PC(USA) good will and it looks forward to the possibility of cooperating endeavors in the future when there is a common mission,” he said.

McBride did not return calls seeking comment. 

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