Careful How You Build that Church

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 19, 2007 — 5 Comments

The always-excellent law blog Religion Clause brings to my attention a case that could have serious ramifications throughout the religious world, and certainly for some modern Pagan institutions. The case hinges on the divorce of a couple who helped found and run Grace Christian Church in Brooklyn. The wife wants a cut of the Church, claiming that the institution was a business and that their marital finances were instrumental in its running and founding.

“plaintiff claims that the Church is a marital asset because it is actually the defendant’s “business” which he operates as his “personal piggy bank.” Specifically, the plaintiff claims that the defendant provided $50,000.00 of their marital money to the Church as start-up capital; defendant controls all of the finances of the Church and makes all financial decisions, defendant refuses to make any financial disclosures to the Church’s Board of Directors and the Church Administrator, hides his finances from the Church elders, determines his own income, refers to the Church as “my Church” and dismisses anyone who challenges his operation and finances of the Church.”

What makes this landmark case especially interesting to modern Pagans, is the language the judge uses in allowing the argument for the church being an asset to go forward.

“The court concluded that if it is shown that the church is the husband’s “alter ego”, it will be valued as a marital asset for purposes of determining equitable distribution.”

In other words, if you are married and build a religious institution (temple/church/center etc) and the courts find that the church is significantly built around you and your teachings (a “cult of personality”, if you will), and not independent of your fiscal/political influence, it could be classified as a marital asset come a divorce. I don’t know about you, but I can think of some Pagan religious institutions founded, supported, and controlled by married couples right off the top of my head (I’ll refrain from listing them since I don’t want to give the impression that I think they are heading for tragedy).

So I think we should all pay attention to this case in the coming weeks/months, as it offers a new legal precedent that could change the way we do business. It should certainly make some up-and-coming “Big Name Pagans” (not to mention the already established ones) pause and give some thought to how their new religious group will be founded and run.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Shelby Meyerhoff

    From a religious point of view, I think the take-away-message is that congregations can be too easily abused by a founder or charismatic figurehead. The notable characteristic about this congregation is not so much that is is led by a married man, as that the leader is dishonest and greedy:”…defendant controls all of the finances of the Church and makes all financial decisions, defendant refuses to make any financial disclosures to the Church’s Board of Directors and the Church Administrator, hides his finances from the Church elders, determines his own income, refers to the Church as ‘my Church’ and dismisses anyone who challenges his operation and finances of the Church.”This is a totally dysfunctional way to run a congregation, regardless of the marital status of the leader(s).

  • Anonymous

    “This is a totally dysfunctional way to run a congregation, regardless of the marital status of the leader(s).”True, true.”I can think of some Pagan religious institutions founded, supported, and controlled by married couples right off the top of my head”I think the operative word here is “controlled.” Those institutions would not qualify as churches, and never did.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Those institutions would not qualify as churches, and never did.”Perhaps, but all sorts of sins are covered over by the magic of the 501(c)(3). This ruling should have everyone taking a closer look at the religious organizations they are involved with.

  • Melissa

    In a way, corporations are their own kind of magic. They only exist if you treat them as if they exist. Sounds like this guy was treating his not-for-profit as if it were not real, and as a result it might be treated that way by the courts. I would hope Pagans would understand more about the care and feeding of fictional creatures but I understand your fears.

  • Anonymous

    This is a tough one for us as readers to judge, since the “description” is admittedly the plaintiff’s and not the court’s Statement of Fact. Yes, it’s one to watch, but let’s not be too hasty to judge one-sided.