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Local congregation will pay $550,000 after break from Presbyterian Church

A Lancaster congregation will pay $550,000 to the denomination it was formerly affiliated with, settling a contentious legal battle that wound up in State Appellate Court.

Lancaster Presbyterian Church had been in a court tussle for two years with the Presbytery of Western New York and the Presbyterian Church USA over ownership of the historic worship space on Broadway and Lake Avenue.

"I think there's a growing sense of a final resolution of this in sight, and we're looking forward to a celebration when we have all of this resolved," said the Rev. Kelly Negus, pastor of Lancaster Presbyterian.

After years of disagreement with the national denomination over social issues and Bible interpretation, Lancaster church members voted unanimously in 2008 to break away and affiliate with a smaller, more conservative denominational body, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The congregation of several hundred people then sued to gain ownership of the property.

In two separate court rulings, judges sided with the Presbytery of Western New York and the Presbyterian Church USA. The Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, declined to consider the case, which had the potential to set precedent for other property skirmishes between denominations and individual congregations.

The Presbyterian Church USA and Presbytery of Western New York had argued that the denomination's Book of Order explicitly states that local congregations hold their property "in trust" for the benefit of the denomination and thus must turn the property over if leaving the denomination.

Lawyers for the Lancaster church maintained that the trust clause did not apply because the congregation was incorporated in 1828, long before the clause was adopted in 1981.

The settlement was worked out over the past several months, and the presbytery earlier this week voted to concur with the agreement worked out by a team of negotiators known as the administrative commission.

The congregation will have to raise $175,000 within the next two months and take out a new mortgage to pay the $550,000 settlement. The money is due Aug. 18.

Negus said he didn't regret taking the case to court, even though it has been costly.

"We had an obligation to try and secure the property without having to pay an untoward sum for it," he said.

Without court intervention, the presbytery likely would have removed Negus as pastor and replaced the church's session -- its lay leadership council -- with an outside group, the pastor said.

"We were forced to take the steps we took," he said.

The Book of Order does allow the presbytery to intercede in a congregation, said Donald L. Houck Jr., past presbytery moderator.

"But there was really no talk of doing that," said Houck. "It's too bad there was that distrust. I don't think it would've played out that way."

The Federal-style church building, constructed in 1832, is the second-oldest sanctuary in Erie County. It was expanded and renovated in 2002 at a cost of $1 million. When the deal is completed, Lancaster Presbyterian Church will be given clear title to the property.

The settlement also requires the congregation to provide copies of session records through June 15, 2008, to the presbytery.

Presbytery leaders said they sought an amicable resolution but could not let the property go without compensation, especially after the presbytery incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

An administrative commission appointed by the presbytery determined the $550,000 amount by adding up legal fees, as well as unpaid "per capita" dues that Lancaster Presbyterian had owed to the presbytery over the past decade or so. It also factored in 10 percent of the overall value of the property.

The church recently was appraised at $875,000.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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