Tuesday, October 6, 2009
U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Get Involved in Episcopal Church Property Dispute
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday declined to get involved in a dispute between breakaway Episcopalians and their former national church over who owns a Newport Beach parish and its property.
The justices denied certiorari in St. James Anglican Church’s appeal of a ruling by the California Supreme Court that parish property reverted to the general church when local members voted to disaffiliate.
Part of the Los Angeles Diocese, St. James is one of several dozen individual parishes and four dioceses nationwide that split from the national church after the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
Newport Beach Church
The Episcopal Church has argued that its rules bar anyone from walking away with denomination property, which often includes large endowments and land worth millions of dollars. The conservatives who want to separate say they have spent years, even decades, spending money to maintain and improve the buildings.
St. James was founded in 1947 as a “mission” and fully incorporated as a church in 1949 after founding members promised to be bound under the “Ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of Los Angeles, and his successors in office, the Constitution and Canons of the Church now known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.”
Its articles of incorporation expressed the purpose of “establish[ing] and maintain[ing] a Parish which shall form a constituent part of the Diocese of Los Angeles in…the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.”
St. James’ Rector and its board of directors voted in 2004 to cease all affiliation with the Episcopal Church and amended the local church’s articles of incorporation to delete all references to the national church. A majority of the congregation voted to support the decision, but 12 members voted against it.
When the local church’s board declined a request to surrender parish property, the diocese and one of the 12 against disaffiliation—joined later by the national church in intervention—filed suit against the breakaway members.
Orange Superior Court Judge David C. Velasquez dismissed the action as a strategic lawsuit against public participation and sustained a demurrer, but the Court of Appeal—on an appeal consolidated with those of two other breakaway Southern California churches, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David’s Church in North Hollywood—reversed.
Div. Three Presiding Justice David G. Sills wrote that the diocese’s lawsuit did not implicate any protected activity under California’s anti-SLAPP statute and that the national church had a right to enforce a trust on local parish property against local members.
On appeal, the California Supreme Court agreed in an opinion by Justice Ming W. Chin that the anti-SLAPP statute was inapplicable. The high court also ruled that the national church owned the property, but for different reasons.
Applying the “neutral principles of law approach,” Chin explained:
“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.
“These governing documents make clear that church property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled by the local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the general church. When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it.”
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, joined by Justices Marvin R. Baxter, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, Carlos R. Moreno and Carol A. Corrigan concurred, but Justice Joyce L. Kennard joined only in the result.
Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno—head of the 85,000-person diocese—applauded the U.S. Supreme Court’s action in declining to hear the case and urged reconciliation.
The state court ruling, however, left the door open for a return to trial court, and St. James filed a case in Orange County Superior Court earlier this year.
“Our battle is far from over,” the Rev. Richard Crocker, senior pastor at St. James, said in a statement.
St. James is now aligned with the Anglican Church of North America, a network of seceding Episcopal parishes and other congregations that was formed by theological conservatives as a rival to the Episcopal Church.
The case is St. James Parish v. Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, 08-1579.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company