In the first case of its kind, a wife of a New York State pastor who is suing for divorce has asked the courts to treat his church as a personal asset. She wants her share of the net worth of the church when her divorce comes through. She says her husband put $50,000 of their savings into the church to get it going. She alleges that he uses the church funds as his personal piggy bank, that he sets his own salary and that he has misused church tithes and other funds, even paying his mistress out of them to the tune of either $750 per week or per month. The pastor has said that he is merely an employee of the church who receives a salary for his services and that therefore the church cannot be treated as a marital asset. However, a New York Supreme Court Justice has agreed to hear her case and has asked for the value of the church to be appraised.
This is a scary development. Let me state categorically: a church and its finances cannot be a personal or marital asset. For a NY court to consider making a church an asset to be divided in a divorce settlement is a scandalous innovation, a departure from legal precedent and a threat to the rights of every local congregation. If a court were to allow this crazy claim, what may be next? Who knows?
I have sympathy with a woman whose preacher husband has kept a mistress. Such a man should be drummed out of the ministry and never allowed to return to it. I can understand her desire to make sure she receives her fair share of the community property and wealth built up over 31 years of marriage. But she is wrong to try to make a local church a marital asset. If her husband has been guilty of all she alleges, there are laws under which he should be dealt with. For example, if he invested her money in starting up the church without her knowledge or consent, a court may hold him responsible and keep this in view in splitting the remaining assets. If he has misused church funds, the police and courts have the power to investigate and charge him. If he is guilty I would hope he would be made to face the full rigor of the law.
But to make his church a marital asset is preposterous and dangerous. To give the courts the right to filch the giving of a congregation and distribute it in ways for which it was never intended is an unwarranted intrusion by the State into the Church. The separation of Church and State works both ways. This NY case threatens to overthrow one aspect of that separation.
Perhaps this is just another of America's seemingly endless trivial lawsuits. I hope so and I hope that the judge looking at it will dismiss it. But I fear it may also be a trial balloon, a testing of the waters or however you want to describe an attempt to find out just how far opponents of the rights of churches can push their agenda.