Highland Park Presbyterian Is Back in the Gay News Again, Surely Not for the Last Time

The saga of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and gaydom reached another milestone last week when the church agreed to pay its too-gay national church body $7.8 million in order to break away and join a new no-gay version of Presbyterianism, a Protestant denomination which traces its name from the Greek, presbuteros.

HPPC must pony up the nearly eight million dollars as payment for church property that the national body, called PCUSA, claims is its own. Once that's done HPPC can join a new Presbyterian outfit called ECO, which unlike PCUSA, does not allow gay clergy.

We talked about all this a year ago in a series of columns that I found totally embarrassing to write, because they were just so ... embarrassing. In them, Ronald Scates, former pastor of HPPC, accused John Wright, former editor of The Voice, of accusing him of being gay, when all Scates was doing, he said, was trying to cure gay people of being gay.

See also: Straight Talk About Highland Park Presbyterian

This is the kind of story that makes me go sit in my car in the parking garage and gnash my teeth for not having gone to dental school. Thank God -- I speak figuratively -- there was some real estate involved. I was just so relieved to have anything else to talk about.

Highland Park Presbyterian had filed a suit against the national group claiming HPPC was not bound by the typical trust agreement governing church property in the church's national structure. Typically local churches have the equivalent of a deed of trust granting ultimate ownership back to the national outfit.

But Highland Park said no way. In its lawsuit, it claimed that under Texas law, "PCUSA's alleged trust is either invalid or revocable."

After last week's settlement I spoke with Daniel L. Tobey of Vinson & Elkins, lawyers for national group, who told me that Highland Park agreed to settle only after a panel of experts all testified that the trust clause was bullet-proof and the property did not belong to HPPC. Tobey said PCUSA's primary goal in the litigation was to uphold the authority of the trust agreement.

"This was about proving that people's commitment to their church matters, and this settlement validates that," he said. "The denomination's goal was to validate the trust clause that all congregations agree to in order to be part of the Presbyterian church."

It's what Presbyterianism is all about, Tobey told me. "That is a fundamental principle of being part of a hierarchical church, that the property is not for any one congregation. It's for the whole body and the mission of the whole church, and that is what was important to us."

Zack House, communications director for HPPC, told me that HPPC has not changed its view of the trust issue. He pointed out that the trust question never went to trial and so remains undecided by a court. Highland Park leadership is telling members and stating publicly that the $7.8 million represents only 11 percent of the church's total $70 million worth. Tobey laughed when I repeated that to him. He said the church claimed in its own legal filings that its net worth was only $30 million, which would make the $7.8 million a much bigger bite to sell to the faithful.

House told me the church did enter negotiations using the $30 million figure but changed to the higher figure just under a year ago after hiring an outside appraiser. He said the church has provided a FAQ with more detailed information for anybody who's interested.

Be that as it may, I was just so relieved to have money to argue about, so we wouldn't have to talk about whether the pastor of HPPC, before the church decided to split in order to avoid gay pastors, was trying to cure gay people of being gay, and now that HPPC is a member of ECO will their pastors be no-gay-all-the-way or will they consider hiring cured-gay pastors, which I would think would demonstrate their faith in the cure, and what do you have to do to somebody to cure somebody, no, no, don't tell me.

The thing is, behind those rigid exteriors, so to speak, I think Park Cities people can be very ... very ... very complicated. And I'd much rather just talk about the money.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze