In a unanimous decision made on Oct. 18, the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (USA) affirmed that the local congregation, and not the regional presbytery, has full authority on how to spend the tithes and offerings received by its members. The case marked the fourth ruling in which the denomination’s highest court sided with the individual churches in determining the ownership of congregational offerings and tithes.
In essence, the case began earlier in the year with the Heartland Presbytery – which includes Kansas and Missouri – adopted a policy that required churches to demonstrate “full participation” in the presbytery (district) before receiving eligibility to request certain financial assistance from the presbytery. Such “full participation” requirements included making per-capita payments to the presbytery, making and meeting a mission pledge, and filing annual statistical reports.
Two churches, the First Presbyterian Church of Paola, KS and the Hillsdale Presbyterian Church in Stillwell, KS, challenged the new policy for reasons of conscience; the two churches took their case to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Mid America, which ruled in favor of the churches. The case was then carried on to the highest PC(USA) court: the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC).
The GAPJC ruling sided with that of the Mid America Synod court: "The policy improperly turns payment of per capita apportionments or the fulfillment of a mission pledge into a mandate."
In essence, the GAPJC ruled that the Heartland policy places a condition for financial assistance, and is thus unconstitutional.
“A presbytery's right of oversight cannot be construed to give presbytery a right that our polity withholds – namely, a right to mandate a session's full payment of per capita apportionments as a condition of its eligibility to seek presbytery's assistance,” the court wrote. "Furthermore, a presbytery's right of oversight does not permit it to avoid its duty to counsel with churches, to share in mission, or participate in ecclesiastical duties as required by the Book of Order."
It added, "… a congregation's failure to pay full per-capita apportionments or to fulfill a mission pledge ordinarily cannot become determinative or dispositive of a presbytery's refusal to grant that congregation financial assistance. Therefore, a congregation's failure to pay per-capita apportionments or to fulfill a mission pledge cannot be made a condition of eligibility to request a presbytery's financial assistance."
The GAPJC told the presbytery that its "failure to consider the requests of applicants made ineligible by its policy is a misuse of its discretion and therefore improper."