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Mixed results in latest US Court proceedings: CEN 10.09.09 p 7. October 23, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Fort Worth, Property Litigation, San Joaquin.

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State courts in Texas and California have handed down interim rulings in the Dioceses of Fort Worth and San Joaquin cases. While partisans for both sides can claim a win from the mixed bag of rulings in the dispute over whether dioceses may secede from the Episcopal Church, the courts appear to be pulling back from accepting at face value the arguments of the national church that canon law alone should govern church property disputes.

On Oct 2, Texas 141st District Court Judge John Chupp rejected a motion from Bishop Jack Iker and the Diocese of Fort Worth asking that he reconsider last month’s ruling in the bitterly contested battle over the name, corporate seal and assets of the Diocese of Fort Worth. On Sept 16 the judge told the court he saw no reason why a diocese could not withdraw from the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Chupp however, ruled that Bishop Gulick’s attorneys could not represent Bishop Iker’s Diocese or its Corporation, a Texas not for profit association founded in 1983 when the diocese was formed. But he refused to strike the loyalists’ pleadings even though their attorneys stated they were acting on behalf of the 1983 association.

A motion continuing the proceedings until January was approved. In a statement posted on its website the loyalist faction stated they did not oppose the motion for the continuance, but said that none of their attorneys “has ever claimed” that they represented Bishop Iker.

However, at last week’s hearing the judge granted a third motion filed by Bishop Iker that joined Bishop Gulick and the chancellor and officers of the loyalist faction as defendants in the proceedings. The effect of this motion will be that Bishop Gulick and the loyalist group will have to prove they were lawfully elected to the positions they claim to hold in the Diocese of Fort Worth and have the legal right to hold themselves out as the Bishop and officers of the Texas not for profit association named “the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.”

In California, on Sept 22 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Word accepted the petition for review filed by Bishop John-David Schofield and the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin of July 21 Fresno Superior Court ruling granting summary judgment in favor of Bishop Jerry Lamb and the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.

Fresno Judge Adolfo Corona argued dioceses could not leave the Episcopal Church, as it was a “hierarchical church” where parishes are subunits of dioceses and dioceses are subunits of the national church. “In a hierarchical church, an individual local congregation that affiliates with the national church body becomes a member of a much larger and more important religious organization, under its government and control, and bound by its orders and judgments,” he said.

Although other issues remained outstanding and were set down for trial in 2010, the Appellate Court took the unusual step of agreeing to intervene in the case before the trial court had concluded its deliberations.

After Bishop Schofield filed his petition, the Appeals court asked Bishop Lamb to file an informal response. Bishop Schofield was then asked to file a reply by Oct 5. However, after reading Bishop Lamb’s brief, the Fifth District Court of Appeals declined to wait for Bishop Schofield to file his response and ordered Bishop Lamb to submit a formal response to the petition.

The effect of the ruling is to suspend the trial court’s judgment pending a full hearing before the Court of Appeals, which may reject or affirm all or part of the trial court’s decision, or set it down for further deliberations.

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