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The Providence Presbyterian Church of Hilton Head Island filed a civil suit last Friday against its regional denomination in an effort to prove ownership of two island properties.
While the church has butted heads over theological issues with its denomination -- the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PCUSA -- a local church leader stressed that the suit, filed at the Beaufort County Courthouse, was strictly about ownership of the two properties.
The church has almost 26.5 acres of land, roughly 16 of it undeveloped, and Paul Cifaldi, an elder at the church, said the congregation wants to ensure it won't be taken away by the regional arm of the church and the defendant in the suit, the Charleston Atlantic Presbytery.
"We're just asking the court to let us know that it really is in fact our property, as we develop it and invest money in it in the future," Cifaldi said.
That future, he acknowledged, is far from certain for the local church, which has been increasingly unhappy with the direction of national church over the last two decades.
A number of theologically conservative Presbyterian churches across the country have criticized the Louisville, Ky.-based PCUSA, saying it's strayed from the religion's traditions. Another flashpoint has been the ordination of gays and lesbians.
The Episcopal Church has also grappled with the treatment of gay and lesbian members. The ordination of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson in New Hampshire led a number of conservative Episcopal churches to split from the national organization. That split led to disputes over property ownership.
Cifaldi said that while some individual church members may be concerned over PCUSA's position on gays and lesbians, "that's not really where our problem is."
He said local church leaders were put off by the top-down bureaucracy of their denomination, split over some theological issues and upset that the denomination "which used to be a primary source of
missionaries in the world has cut their missionaries down to almost nothing."
"We have had challenges with our denomination, and we have been over the last few years becoming more and more concerned," he said. "... we will as a church prayerfully contemplate and discern where we think God is leading Providence, regardless of the issue of our land."
On the land subject, PCUSA doctrine states that church properties belong to the denomination.
"That's what you agree to when you practice Presbyterianism," said Jimmy Stuckey, an attorney for the Charleston presbytery.
Stuckey added that the presbytery gave Providence the properties for a total of $15.
"What's a little unusual about this situation is usually you don't have a church attempting to usurp ... presbytery property unless there's a schism in the church." Stuckey said.
In those cases, "the argument usually is over who gets to keep the church," he said. Stuckey says state law is clear that such property remains with the denomination.
Terry Finger, an attorney for Providence, said the amount Providence paid for the land is not the point. The name on the land deed is Providence, not the presbytery, he said.
Cifaldi said the resolution of the land dispute won't affect the tough decisions facing the church about whether to
remain in the denomination.
"There's a lot of people who might think 'well, if the land is an issue, that would impact your decision as a church.' But our church is not driven by our land. It's driven by our beliefs."