Lehigh Valley

Judge rules in case of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem

Ruled that the national organization owns church.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - A Northampton County judge made a ruling in a case Tuesday that has left a church divided in Bethlehem.

Northampton County President Judge Stephen Baratta ruled that the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, located at 2344 Center Street, belongs to the national parent organization, the Presbyterian Church USA, not the local congregation that voted to break away.

The ruling follows last year's vote by a majority of the local church members to split from the Presbyterian Church USA and join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

The vote came amid disagreement over the status of same-sex marriage.

A subsequent lawsuit by the Presbyterian Church USA then challenged whether the local body can take ownership of the physical church.

Judge Baratta ruled the local congregation could not and that the church belongs to national organization.

In a press release following the Judge’s decision, First Presbyterian Church Bethlehem PC(USA) leadership issued the following statement:

“We, the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem (PCUSA), are grateful for President Judge Stephen G. Baratta’s clear ruling today affirming that “title to both real and personal property held and/or owned by First Presbyterian of Bethlehem is held in trust for the Lehigh Presbytery of PCUSA.” It is our ardent prayer and hope that our church community can now find a measure of reconciliation around our shared love of our Lord Jesus Christ and for one another. We continue to affirm that we are a congregation in which “All Are Welcome.”

The Reverend J.C. Austin, Designated Pastor/Head of Staff, emphasizes the appeal for reconciliation, stating, “It is a blessing to have the affirmation of the court that our property is inextricably tied to the essential connectional identity of the PC(USA), an identity that generations of members of this congregation have cherished. And this is also a good day to remember the words of the Apostle Paul: ‘‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were also called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all who is over all and through all and in all’ (Ephesians 4:4-6). We continue to hope for opportunities to pursue reconciliation based on our common baptism and discipleship in Christ, and as we do so, we recommit ourselves to looking for signs of the One who makes all things new, especially in this season of Advent.”

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