The Community Church of Paramus received a holiday gift from a judge Friday who ruled members could temporarily re-enter their place of worship even though the church's ownership has changed.
Superior Court Judge Harry G. Carroll granted a stay to the congregation through Jan. 1, which means members don't have to scramble to find another location for Christmas services and bible study meetings, said E. Allen MacDuffie, the church's attorney.
"I am thrilled," said Pastor Joseph Smaha who was joined by other members in the church Friday after being allowed access. "To be back in here and have people here for Christmas services is wonderful."
Carroll ordered "the padlock shall be removed so as to grant defendant's access to the property to conduct their regular church services and other previously scheduled holiday events and activities through and including Jan. 1, 2012."
MacDuffie said he's appealing Carroll's decision last week to grant possession of the Cedar Lane property to the Christian and Missionary Alliance, of which the church was an accredited member. He said also plans to request a stay from the state Appellate Division for use of the place of worship beyond Jan. 1.
The church, meanwhile, is investigating locations to hold services after Jan. 1 including other churches and a member's business. Sunday services will be held at the church at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The Alliance, an evangelical Protestant denomination headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo. filed a lawsuit against the church last year, saying it was entitled to the property and assets. Specifically, when the church voted to become accredited in 1996, it agreed to a clause that called for legal title to all property and effects to be reverted to the Alliance "should the church cease to be subject to the purposes, usages, doctrines and teachings" of the Alliance.
The church amended its certificate of incorporation in 2000 to reflect the accreditation.
In 2009, the Alliance changed the church's status from "accredited" to "development" and determined the church should be shuttered because of declining membership, lack of leadership and financial difficulties. That triggered the clause that reverted ownership of property and assets to the Alliance, the group argued.
Not only was the property ordered turned over to the Alliance but its assets too. That includes $27,000 in church accounts, said Smaha.
Smaha said the Alliance should have given the church nine months to a year to increase its membership as per the group's Constitution; instead it closed the church and assumed control.
"I feel the decision [to close] was made because they wanted the church property," he said. "I don't have hatred in my heart toward them but I'm disappointed. I never expected this organization to act this way."
The church became an accredited member under the leadership of a former pastor, who agreed to do so in return for the Alliance's help finding a new pastor. Some of the benefits of being an accredited member include being allowed to use the Alliance's name, belonging to a larger religious group and missionary visits, Smaha said.
Smaha, a former Alliance pastor, was named the church's new pastor. When members voted for accreditation in 1996, they were assured by the Alliance that there were only several scenarios in which the property would revert to the group: if congregants decided the church was no longer able to function and signed over the property; if the pastor preached doctrine contrary to the Alliance; and if the church was divided.
He said had placed his trust in the Alliance.
"I regret it," he said. "I had expected that a Christian organization would act Christian-like."
Following the judge's recent decision, the locks were changed on the church doors Wednesday, preventing members from entering the building they've owned since 1929. The church, which has more than 100 members, scrambled to make other arrangements to worship.
A key was provided to church members on Friday so they could access the building, Smaha said.
"I feel very happy that we'll be able to honor and glorify Jesus Christ in our own little home," Deacon Peter Ferriero said.
Bruce Terpstra, district superintendent for the Alliance's Metropolitan District, was not working Friday and could not be reached for comment. The Alliance's attorney, Arthur C. Hopkins was unavailable for comment.