BRENTWOOD — The keys to the historic Londonderry Presbyterian Church and about $300,000 in religious relics and valuables are at stake in a civil trial that began yesterday to decide who has title to the church's property and other legal issues.
A schism at the church stems from a vote Sept. 30, when the majority of members of Londonderry Presbyterian Church agreed to leave the national church and join a conservative evangelical denomination.
Those members later locked other church members out of the Pillsbury Road building, forcing them to hold services elsewhere, and later received a court injunction to keep them out of the building until the case is settled.
Meanwhile, the members who voted to stay with the national church want their building and possessions back, and also want to be compensated for the loss of the property since October.
About 60 people on both sides of the dispute packed Courtroom 2 in Rockingham County Superior Court to hear opening arguments and testimony. Their division was apparent in the courtroom as the members now affiliated with the evangelical Presbyterian church sat on the right side of the aisle and the members still affiliated with the national Presbyterian organization crowded onto benches on the left side.
Only one witness, Eric Meyer, president at the time of the schism, took the stand yesterday. Meyer, dressed in a light gray suit, white shirt and dark tie, answered questions from his attorney, Michael Pearman, for approximately two hours.
His testimony is to continue today. Meyer said the congregation's leaders recommended leaving the national church, even though a straw poll showed the majority wanted to stay. Asked why, Meyer said he and the other elders "were confident God was calling us to make this decision, and he would take care of us."
Meyer said the theological issue at stake was the national church liberalizing its standards for ordaining pastors, elders and deacons. He said the church leaders kept secret a straw poll showing 61 percent of the congregation wanted to stay in the national church.
Church members were reluctant to comment on the trial except to say little new information came out during Meyer's testimony, which covered the steps the church leaders took to break from the national church in favor of a conservative group called the New Wineskins Non-Geographic Presbytery of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
"We're just listening," said Aud Segalini, whose husband, Jim, was one of the elders who voted to leave the national church, known as the PCUSA. Asked which doctrines were at the heart of the schism, Segalini gave a general answer.
"The PCUSA is very liberal," she said. "Our congregation chose a more conservative evangelical denomination."
During opening arguments, lawyers for the evangelical Presbyterians said the crux of the case hinges on a religious dispute over reading of Scripture. But lawyers for the group that decided to stay with the national church said the case boils down to papers filed in the New Hampshire attorney general's office that show the church is a corporation affiliated with the PCUSA.
Attorney Ralph Holmes, representing the conservative members, said 71 percent of the congregation voted to leave. Holmes said the evidence would show the church leaders "struggled with a competing sense of responsibility" toward the entire congregation and honoring "their own sense of Scripture." Holmes said the case has "taken an emotional toll."
But attorney Ovide Lamontagne, representing the members siding with the PCUSA, said the legal documents, called articles of agreement, will settle the question. If an organization's bylaws and articles are in a conflict, New Hampshire law says the articles "prevail," he said.
Meyer did not admit to any errors yesterday but did say he and church leaders signed amended bylaws. Asked if the signed documents were the amended articles or the amended bylaws, Meyer said he signed the bylaws.