Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Court of Appeal Rejects Request for Trial in Episcopal Parish’s Dispute With Church
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A group of breakaway Episcopalians whose dispute with their former national church over ownership of a Newport Beach parish led to a state Supreme Court ruling cannot now take the matter to trial, a divided panel of the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Three held Friday in an unpublished opinion that the high court’s ruling last year in a case involving three Southern California parishes that left the church over its ordination of an openly-gay minister conclusively decided ownership of church buildings and property.
Members of St. James Church had argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Episcopal Church Cases 45 Cal.4th 467 applied only to their demurrer and motion to strike the national church’s suit against them as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, and that they were entitled to litigate the matter on remand.
But Presiding Justice David G. Sills said the high court fully reviewed the issue of ownership when it affirmed the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that parish property reverted to the general church when local members voted to disaffiliate.
The high court reached its conclusion in an opinion by Justice Ming W. Chin, who reasoned that civil courts may resolve non-ecclesiastical disputes within a hierarchical church organization on the basis of “neutral principles of law.”
Chin also specifically wrote that “the general church, not the local church, owns the property in question.”
The national church sought judgment on the pleadings in the wake of the Supreme Court opinion, but the breakaway members objected that a 1991 letter waived the national church’s claim to the property. Orange Superior Court Judge Thierry Patrick Colaw sided with the defendants and denied the motion.
Record Included Letter
On the national church’s petition challenging Colaw’s order, Sills wrote that the Supreme Court’s opinion resolved the matter because ownership was at issue before the high court, and because the record on which the court relied included the letter.
He pointed out that the Supreme Court’s conclusion was framed in terms of present ownership by the national church, and based on the concept that the property had already reverted to the national church as a matter of law.
“ ‘Reverted’ is a past tense, already-happened, done-deal sort of word,” he explained.
Sills also noted that Justice Joyce W. Kennard—who concurred separately with the Supreme Court—understood the majority to state that the national church owned the property, and he rejected the argument that post-judgment modifications to the opinion demonstrated a contrary conclusion.
Justice Richard D. Fybel, however, dissented that the high court’s opinion was confined solely to review of the demurrer and the anti-SLAPP motion, and he agreed with the local church members that “entry of judgment for plaintiffs at this procedural stage is ‘revolutionary.’ ”
Opinion Not ‘Unclear’
Justice Eileen C. Moore concurred with Sills, writing, “[u]ntil I read the dissent, it did not occur to me the Supreme Court meant anything other than exactly what its opinion states.” She added that her investigation led her to conclude the high court was neither hesitant nor unclear when directing lower courts in opinions involving demurrers or motions to strike.
Los Angeles attorney John Shiner of Holme Roberts & Owen LLP represented the national church, and said his clients were very pleased with the majority’s interpretation.
Eric Sohlgren of Payne & Fears in Irvine, counsel for the breakaway members of St. James, agreed with Fybel’s analysis, calling the opinion “an unprecedented decision that has absolutely no basis in California law.”
He said his clients were still discussing whether to appeal, adding:
“No matter how you may interpret it, the procedural reality is that St. James never had the opportunity to present a defense in the trial court.”
The case is Episcopal Church Cases, G042454.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company