Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Court Sides With Episcopal Hierarchy Over Parish in Schism
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church in its struggle with a San Diego County congregation that sought to leave the church over theological differences and affiliate with an Anglican church in Africa.
Holding that disaffected members of St. John’s Parish church in Fallbrook lost their ability to amend the parish corporation’s bylaws and articles of incorporation to make the affiliation when they resigned, Div. One ruled in favor of a group of loyalist parishioners who sought a declaration that they were the corporation’s true directors.
The parish’s clergy, members of its governing board and a majority group of its members resigned their membership in the Episcopal Church in 2006 over long-term doctrinal differences. Rev. Donald Kroeger explained at the time that “[i]t appeared that the Episcopal Church was not going to return to its biblical roots and was moving further and further away from mainstream Anglican faith and biblical teaching.”
The bishop of the Diocese of San Diego determined that the remaining loyalist members of the parish constituted its true membership and that the resigned dissident members were no longer qualified to serve as members of the parish’s governing board, and a new board was elected from among the loyalists.
However, the resigned members—who had since voted to become affiliated with a member of the Anglican Church in Uganda—refused to relinquish their seats or control over assets held by the parish corporation to the new board, and the new board sued to determine who were the lawful directors.
San Diego Superior Court Judge Jacqueline M. Stern ruled for the dissident board members, concluding under neutral principles of California corporations law that they were the true directors because the plaintiffs could not show the defendants ever stopped being directors.
But Justice Gilbert Nares reversed on appeal, concluding “that the individual defendants, once they resigned their membership in the Episcopal Church, relinquished any rights they had to be directors of the Parish corporation and that any acts they took thereafter in such roles were a nullity.”
He also wrote that Stern should have deferred to the Episcopal Church’s determination with respect to who were the lawful directors because the question involved the resolution of a “matter of ecclesiastical doctrine, polity or administration,” and opined that a neutral reading of church law similarly supported the conclusion that the dissident members could no longer serve after renouncing their membership.
Representatives of the plaintiffs and the San Diego diocese could not be reached for comment, but defense counsel Eric C. Sohlgren of Payne & Fears in Irvine told the MetNews that he thought the Court of Appeal erred in “disregarding the fact that St. John’s is separately incorporated.”
Nares made note in his opinion that the parish corporation’s bylaws adopted the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church, but Sohlgren called it a “matter of religious liberty” for parishioners to change their church’s affiliation, saying that the court’s decision meant that “once [churches] sign up, they can never leave.”
Sohlgren also said that he was surprised that the court had issued a decision in the matter, given that the California Supreme Court is expected in early January to issue a ruling over the ownership status of church property under similar circumstances in Episcopal Church Cases, S155094, which involves St. James Parish in Newport Beach, which similarly left the Episcopal Church and affiliated with the Anglican Church of Uganda.
Partly in light of the pending case, Sohlgren commented, his clients are “seriously considering” an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Justices Richard D. Huffman Cynthia Aaron joined Nares in his opinion.
The case is New v. Kroeger, 08 S.O.S. 5755.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company