Episcopal Church takes a legal hit in California: The Church of England Newspaper, Nov 26, 2010 p 7. November 26, 2010Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Property Litigation, San Joaquin.
First published in The Church of England Newspaper.
Civil courts may not adjudicate ecclesiastical disputes, the California Court of Appeals has ruled. On Nov 18 the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno overturned a lower court order that had given trusteeship of the property of the Diocese of San Joaquin to a faction loyal to the national Episcopal Church.
In its 11 page decision the Fifth Court of Appeal held that while civil courts would accept the determination of the Episcopal Church as to whom it recognized as one of its bishops or dioceses, the court would not extend that power to the disposition of property. Church property disputes in California would be governed by “neutral principals of law” where the court would look to title deeds and trusts, and not to canon law or church polity, in determining ownership.
The “First Amendment rights of individuals and corporations” along with “general California statutory and common law principles governing transfer of title by the legal title holder, the law of trusts, … and general principles of corporate governance” control the disposition of church property in California.
The court held the dispute “whether Schofield or Lamb is the incumbent Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, is quintessentially ecclesiastical. Accordingly, the trial court erred in adjudicating that cause of action and, upon proper motion, must dismiss that cause of action.”
Both sides in the San Joaquin case have hailed the court’s decision as a victory. However, the ruling is likely to undercut the church’s national legal campaign. Its “strategy of claiming the property of a departing diocese because it is somehow ‘hierarchical’ today went down to defeat in Fresno,” canon lawyer Allan Haley said.
Beginning in 2004, the Diocese of San Joaquin has taken steps to distance itself from the national Episcopal Church. One of three dioceses that do not ordain women priests, San Joaquin had also objected to the innovations of doctrine and discipline surrounding the Gene Robinson affair, and in 2007 its synod voted to leave the Episcopal Church and seek the oversight of the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori responded by deposing Bishop Schofield and calling a special meeting of synod, which elected the retired Bishop of Northern California as the diocese’s acting bishop. Bishop Lamb and the minority faction then deposed the clergy who supported the secession, and initiated a lawsuit seeking control over the diocese’s property.
On July 21, 2009 the trial court granted a motion in summary judgment on the first count of the complaint brought by Bishop Lamb, which asked for a “judicial declaration that the amendments finally adopted by the Diocese in December 2007 were illegal and void under the Constitution and Canons of ECUSA, and that as a consequence Bishop Lamb had succeeded to the position as bishop of the Diocese, incumbent of its corporation sole, and president/trustee of its associated property-holding entities.”
Bishop Schofield and the now Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin appealed the motion, which effectively gave the minority faction absolute control of the property. However, in its ruling the Court of Appeals held the trial court erred in determining who the proper bishop of San Joaquin was.
The trial court was instructed to determine who the lawful owner of the property was by way of a review of the property transfers made by Bishop Schofield and to determine if these transfers were valid under civil law.
In a statement released after the verdict, attorneys for Bishop Lamb accounted the decision as a victor. San Joaquin Chancellor Michael Glass claimed the decision means “the defendants can no longer assert in court that a Diocese has the right to unilaterally secede from The Episcopal Church, or that Bishop Lamb is somehow not the Bishop of the Diocese.”
Mr. Glass used a baseball analogy to describe the decision. “Think sacrifice fly-ball. Sure, we might have taken an out, but we just put the rest of the case in scoring position,” as the issues had been “narrowed” in favor of the loyalist faction.
Mr. Haley, a member of the majority faction’s legal team, disputed Mr. Glass’s characterization, as the “decision reversed and vacated a ruling by the trial court stating exactly [Mr. Glass’s claim].”
“If we take the present opinion as our guide,” Mr. Haley said, the court held the Episcopal Church “may call any group of its followers it wants a ‘diocese’ in its Church, even a tiny minority who remains behind after the great majority leaves. But whether the majority or the minority succeeds to legal title to the property is a matter of civil, not ecclesiastical, law — including First Amendment rights of freedom of association, trust law, and the law of corporations and corporate governance. Resolution of those issues on neutral principles will decide the ultimate ownership of the disputed property, and not resolution of who is the bishop, which is an ecclesiastical question.”