The legal right of Mennonites to the free exercise of their religion as expressed in decrees of rulers, or legislation by the political units in which they lived, is treated in the article Religious Liberty. The following discussion relates solely to the legal rights of the Mennonites as ecclesiastical bodies to hold property and function under the law as legal persons. The discussion as it relates to Mennonites in Europe is based on the article Körperschaftsrechte in the Mennonitisches Lexicon. In that article Christian Hege reported the historical development of the legal status of Mennonite churches in Prussia on the basis of the pamphlet by Gustav Reimer, Sind die Mennoniten-Gemeinden in Preussen und in der freien Stadt Danzig Körperschaften des offentlichen Rechts? (Heubuden, 1920), while J.Yntema reported only briefly on the situation in the Netherlands.
Since the Anabaptists never enjoyed full legal toleration anywhere in Europe there never was any possibility for their congregations to have a juridical legal status or to hold property. The Mennonites did not enjoy full legal toleration and a corresponding legal status in any country in Europe until the turn of the 18th-19th century. This came first in Holland in 1795 as a result of the French Revolution when the state church was disestablished and all religious groups were given equal rights. Since then every Dutch Mennonite congregation can become a legal entity. At first, permission and approval of the congregation's constitution was necessary, but now only the delivery of a declaration to the proper governmental office is necessary. The congregations are autonomous and have full power to hold property, to receive and administer all funds including legacies, and in general to function as juridical persons. The Algemeene Doopsgezinde Societeit and other conferences, though not incorporated, have the rights of a legal person.
In Switzerland and France the development was similar to that in the Netherlands. The French Revolution finally brought a large measure of free dom although full legal status did not come until later in the 19th century.
In Germany the legal status of Mennonite congregations was long confused. In practice the grants and permissions given to Mennonite congregations by rulers or state authorities meant that the congregations could in reality hold property (own meeting houses) and receive legacies, etc., as the fully recognized state churches did. However, full legal recognition did not come until quite late, for instance, in Prussia in 1874 when a special law was passed called "The Law of June 12, 1874, Pertaining to the Conditions of the Mennonites." Even here incorporation was not a right, but could be granted by joint agreement of the Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Interior, and the Minister of Religious Affairs and certain conditions had to be met. In the other German states the granting of full legal status, including the right of incorporation, proceeded in a variable fashion, some earlier and some later than in Prussia. The right to become a registered association (Eingetragener Verein), which carried much the same privileges as the incorporated body (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts) enjoyed, including ownership of property, came earlier and more easily than the right of incorporation. A basic change was brought about by the Constitution of the Republic of 1919, which placed all religious bodies on the same legal footing. Basically in Germany in the 1950s only an associated group of congregations could become an incorporated body, while individual congregations remained registered associations. The conference known as the Vereinigung der Deutschen Mennoniten gemeinden (formerly Vereinigung der Mennonitengemeinden im Deutschen Reich) was the first German Mennonite incorporated body (8 November 1922 in Hamburg). The Bavarian Mennonite congregations were incorporated as a Vereinigung 31 August 1926, and each separate congregation received the right to incorporate on 16 March 1928. All did this except Ingolstadt. The South German Conference called the Badisch-Württ.-Bayerischer Gemeindeverband has remained a registered association.
In the United States and Canada the legal status of churches is regulated by the laws of the several states and provinces, not by national federal legislation. The common practice until the late 20th centuries was for such congregations not to become incorporated. Congregational property and money was usually held by trustees who could usually act as a legal person. Increasing litigation has led many North American to incorporate in more recent years. Church boards (mission, education, publication, etc.) and institutions (schools, homes for the aged, hospitals, etc.) are usually incorporated with boards of trustees. The national conferences of the various Mennonite groups are sometimes incorporated, especially the larger bodies that hold substantial property, e.g. Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The Mennonite Central Committee was not incorporated until 1937 (in Pennsylvania) and then chiefly in order to hold property.
In the United States and Canada churches, church boards, and institutions of the nonprofit type, whether incorporated or unincorporated, are exempt from taxation, and are usually incorporated under nonprofit corporation acts.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 311-312. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. "Legal Status." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L433.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. (1955). Legal Status. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/L433.html.