Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, November 22, 2010


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Courts Must Stay Out of Religious Controversy—Court of Appeal

Justices Overturn Ruling Recognizing New Episcopal Bishop in Fresno




Civil courts must stay out of an internecine dispute within a church if the resolution of the issue requires interpretation of religious doctrine, the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.

The court Thursday issued a writ of mandate directing the Fresno Superior Court to set aside a summary adjudication in favor of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America and Jerry A. Lamb. Lamb is one of two claimants to the title of bishop and control of church property in the Fresno-based Diocese of San Joaquin.

While civil courts may resolve church property disputes on the basis of neutral legal principles, Presiding Justice James Ardaiz explained, whether Lamb or John-David Schofield is the bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin “is an issue the First Amendment forbids us from adjudicating.”

The PEC-USA, more commonly referred to simply as the Episcopal Church, is a member of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide body led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England. The constitution of the Episcopal Church allows each diocese to elect its bishop at an annual convention, subject to the approval of the parent church.

The litigation in Fresno is an outgrowth of a schism within the Episcopal Church over issues such as the ordination of openly gay and female priests and the parent church’s approval of same-sex unions and of same-sex marriages in states where legal.

Schofield identifies with conservatives who oppose the Episcopal Church’s “unilateral decisions about theology, sexuality, and ordination” as inconsistent with Anglican doctrine.

New Affiliation

In a series of moves between 2004 and 2008, the diocese amended its governing documents to eliminate the requirement that the Episcopal Church approve the selection of the bishop, later disassociated itself from the church completely, and affiliated with the Provincial Synod of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of South America.

The Episcopal Church responded by exercising “ecclesiastical discipline’ under its canons, declaring that Schofield had “abandoned the communion of this Church” and ordering him to cease “exercising the gifts of ordination in the ordained ministry of this Church.”

The House of Bishops then ordered his removal as bishop. The minority of members within the diocese who did not secede with Schofield’s followers in 2007 then held a convention and elected Lamb as bishop.

When Schofield and his followers refused to turn church property over to Lamb, the Episcopal Church and Lamb filed suit, alleging breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, ejectment, and fraudulent conveyance, and seeking various forms of relief.

Constitution and Canons

With respect to the cause of action for declaratory relief, which was the subject of the writ petition, Judge Adolfo Corona ruled that the diocese and its leaders were subject to the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church. Pursuant to those enactments, the judge declared, the diocese’s purported withdrawal from the Episcopal Church was invalid, the removal of Schofield as bishop was lawful, and Lamb was the rightful bishop.

Ardaiz, however, explained for the Court of Appeal that questions of church affiliation and disaffiliation, and of the selection and removal of bishops and other clerical leaders, are “ecclesiastical facts” beyond the courts’ jurisdiction.

While the trial judge erred in granting declaratory relief, the presiding justice went on to say, the court is not necessarily precluded from resolving the other causes of action.

Ardaiz explained:

“[C]ivil civil court jurisdiction is properly invoked to resolve issues concerning property transfers assertedly made by Schofield while he was the duly constituted Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin. Resolution of these issues involves consideration of both the powers invested in the bishop under the church law at the time he took those actions, and the powers of the bishop under state corporate, trust, and property law at the time he took these actions.”

Church law, he added, may be relevant to those issues to the extent it “may establish trust relationships and limit or expand corporate powers.”

The case is Schofield v. Superior Court (Diocese of San Joaquin), 10 S.O.S. 6521.


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