The definition of the word chutzpah is when a man kills both his parents and then begs for the court’s mercy because he is an orphan.

Typically I would not apply a Yiddish word to a church dispute.  And yet . . .

In January, 2017, members of the Newton Presbyterian Church (NPC) voted to withdraw from the national Presbyterian organization.  The withdrawing members called themselves the Newton Covenant Church (NCC).  The schism arose because the withdrawing members disagreed with the progressive stance of the national organization with respect to same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ministers.

NPC and the Boston affiliate of the national organization sued NCC and its officers, alleging that they had unlawfully exerted control over real property and bank accounts owned by NPC, had rejected the church’s authority to resolve an ecclesiastical schism, and had conducted a vote not authorized under the constitution of  national organization. They sought in part a declaratory judgment that NPC owned church property at 75 Vernon Street in Newton, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Superior Court granted partial summary judgment to NPC.  It also held that NPC is the sole and exclusive owner of the real property and ordered NCC and its members to vacate the premises.  The parties subsequently settled. 

NCC had requested a defense from Great American Insurance Company (GAIC) under a Directors and Officers policy GAIC had issued to NPC. NCC asserted that it  was the same legal entity as NPC. GAIC denied the claim.

In Newton Covenant Church v. Great Am. Ins. Co., 956 F.3d 32 (1st Cir. 2020), the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that NCC was not covered by the policy.  The policy defined “Insured” as the “Organization” and “Insured Persons.”  The policy defined the “Organization” as the entity named in the declarations, which in this case was the NPC.  The policy defined “Insured Persons” as “persons who were, now are, or shall be directors, trustees [or] officers . . . of the Organization.”

The court held that there was no coverage even to the extent that NCC claimed that it was a segment of the original NPC, and therefore within the definition of Insured, because the policy contained an exclusion for claims between insureds.  The same exclusion excluded coverage to the extent that NCC claimed that it was the original NPC and had simply undergone a name change.  “Because insureds would be on both sides of the litigation, the exclusion would apply.”