Episcopal Church Wins in Property Disputes

By Dart, John | The Christian Century, February 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

Episcopal Church Wins in Property Disputes


Dart, John, The Christian Century


Episcopal bishop J. Jon Bruno of the large Los Angeles diocese was "overjoyed" at the recent California Supreme Court ruling that said breakaway congregations cannot take possession of their properties, which are held in trust for a larger church body.

Through her New York office. Episcopal presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the January 5 decision was a "ringing endorsement" for the rights of parent denominations. She added that she hoped the ruling's "unequivocal reasoning" would bring remaining property disputes in the 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church to a speedy conclusion.

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Just about as happy, if not exultant, are officials of other connectional church bodies such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, some of whose dissident congregations are leaving over issues of biblical interpretation and gay rights.

The California decision "is a clear win for the national Episcopal church--along with PCUSA and many other denominations," according to an analysis written by a consulting attorney for the Presbyterian synod that oversees congregations in southern California and Hawaii. A copy of the analysis was obtained by the CENTURY.

United Methodist leaders in California were dismayed four years ago when a breakaway Fresno-area congregation, St. Luke's Methodist, triumphed in court. An appeals court ruled that though a trust agreement had been entered with the national body, state laws allowed such trusts to be revoked. The California Supreme Court announced that it would not review that case.

However, the Presbyterian analysis circulated among PCUSA churches concluded that the St. Luke's Methodist case "had lost its power as a precedent in California" after the recent state Supreme Court ruling.

American judges have long refused to referee doctrinal disputes in churches. Most courts conclude that to do so would violate the First Amendment liberty of religious groups to manage their own affairs--free of government interference. But disaffiliating congregations upset with changes in their denominations have hoped that documents demonstrating their long-term local control and ownership would carry the day on secular and "neutral" principles of law.

The Episcopal case centered on St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California, and it affects two likeminded parishes in Long Beach and North Hollywood.

Amid the turmoil over the national church convention's 2003 approval of the election of an openly gay priest, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire, St. James broke away from the Episcopal Church and aligned itself with the Anglican Province of Uganda, as did the other two Los Angeles-area congregations.

The ruling in January by the California Supreme Court was agreed to by six of its seven justices, with the seventh concurring on the overall conclusion but using different reasoning.

Justice Ming W. Chin wrote for the majority: "Although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be bound by its governing documents." When St. James disaffiliated from the general church, "the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it."

In other words, according to the Presbyterian analysis, the secular courts must consider not only state corporation codes, church property deeds and articles and bylaws of the congregation, but also the denomination's constitution and rules that bind its churches to the larger body.

It was uncertain if the dissenting congregations would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Writers of the Presbyterian analysis call it "highly unlikely" that the nation's high court would accept the case.

John R. Shiner, chancellor of the Los Angeles Episcopal diocese, agreed that a successful appeal was improbable.

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