Church property. Crawford Superior Court. Before Judge Brown.
Edwards & Youmas, Brenda C. Youmas, for appellant.
Rodney E. Davis, for appellees.
DOYLE, Presiding Judge. Miller and Dillard, JJ., concur.
Doyle, Presiding Judge.
Jane Thomas, as the presiding elder of the Sixth Episcopal District of Georgia of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (" the CME" ), filed a petition for declaratory judgment and an injunction against Beulah Johnson, Marion Shannon, Jr., Thomas Howard, and Robert Hunt, seeking use and control of the Bethel Christian Methodist Church (" Bethel Church" ). Following an evidentiary hearing, the trial court entered final judgment in favor of the defendants. The CME appeals, and we vacate and remand the case for the reasons that follow.
In its petition, the CME, " a hierarchal religious denomination[, which] is organized and functions solely as a connectional church with subordinate governing districts and location churches," alleged that for over 100 years, Bethel Church has been " a subordinated, connectional member of the national CME church," which is " subject to the practice, procedures, rules, and regulations as stated in The Book of Discipline of the [CME], and other governing documents." The CME further alleged that Bethel Church used the name of the CME church; abided by the CME policies and customs; accepted the [329 Ga.App. 602] pastorate and literature of the CME ministers; paid conference assessments and dues to the CME; and participated and enrolled as a subordinate member of the CME at annual and quarterly conferences.
On January 10, 2011, Bethel Church executed a resolution acknowledging that although " in recent years [it] has enjoyed an affiliation with the Sixth District of the [CME]," it was effectively " terminat[ing] and cancel[ing] any and all affiliation with the [CME] in all respects, effective on January 1, 2011." On January 9, 2011, the CME filed its petition for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief, alleging that pursuant to The Book of Discipline, the Bethel Church property was held in trust for the CME, which is " the legal and equitable owner" of the property.
The CME attached as exhibits to the complaint an excerpt from the 2010 CME Book of Discipline and a copy of a quitclaim deed for the church property, executed on March 13, 1996, which reflects that C. C. Ranch, Inc., a Florida corporation, conveyed the property at issue
unto BEULAH JOHNSON, SOLOMON McCRARY, MARION SHANNON, LUCILLE EZELL, and THOMAS HOWARD as the Trustees of Bethel Church and to their successors in office (Bethel Church being an unincorporated religious association) of Crawford County, Georgia, their successors, heirs, executors, administrators[,] and assigns.
The defendants filed an answer, and the trial court conducted a final hearing on August 1, 2013. The defendants presented a witness at the hearing, but the trial court did not hear the testimony of the CME's witnesses.
On December 16, 2013, the trial court entered a final judgment in favor of the defendants. In its order, the trial court found that the 1996 quitclaim deed conveying the church property at issue to Bethel Church did not create a trust in favor of the CME. And despite concluding that Bethel Church " is a member of ... [the CME]," a hierarchical organization, and that Bethel Church " is, by agreement, [329 Ga.App. 603] bound to follow its organizational by-laws, codified in The Book of Discipline," the ...