Contradictory rulings in US Episcopal property cases: The Church of England Newspaper, May 26, 2013 p 6. May 28, 2013Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Property Litigation, The Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church’s legal battles over property spawned a number of contradictory rulings and judgments over the past few weeks.
A Superior Court in Southern California has ordered a breakaway parish to turn over its property to the diocese of Los Angeles; the Virginia Supreme Court handed down a mixed ruling allowing a breakaway parish to keep its cash but not its property; while the Northern California Superior Court has rejected the claim that as a matter of law a diocese may not withdraw from the Episcopal Church without permission of the General Convention.
A decision is also expected shortly in the Fort Worth case from the Texas Supreme Court. The justices are expected to rule this month whether the Diocese of Fort Worth under Bishop Jack Iker may withdraw from the Episcopal Church.
Following three weeks of court proceedings in Illinois, the case of the Diocese of Quincy v the Episcopal Church has been placed before a judge for adjudication. A decision is expected this summer.
A decision is also expected in federal court in South Carolina on the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. After suffering a major setback in the state court, attorneys for the national Church filed a motion to remove the case to the federal courts, arguing that issues of trademark law and church/state law should be litigated in that venue.
On 25 April the Fresno Superior Court in California affirmed its 6 March ruling denying summary judgment to the Episcopal Church in its lawsuit against the diocese of San Joaquin. Judge Jeffrey Hamilton said there were disputed issues of fact to be resolved in deciding whether the diocese acted lawfully when its Synod voted in December 2007 to withdraw from the Episcopal Church.
Relying upon the neutral principles of law doctrine to adjudicate the issue judge Hamilton held the Episcopal Church had failed to show that is a matter of law the Constitution and canons of the national Episcopal Church forbad the unilateral withdrawal of the diocese from the national church.
On 1 May 2013 Judge Kim Dunning of the Orange County Superior Court in Southern California held that the Bishop of Los Angeles had no authority to give the parish of St James in Newport Beach a written waiver exempting the congregation’s property from the reach of the Dennis Canon.
She ordered the parish to hand over its $17 million property to the diocese, finding the national Church’s rules governing parish property took precedence over civil property and trust laws.
She dismissed as non-binding a 1991 letter signed by the then Canon to the Ordinary D Bruce MacPherson, later to become the Bishop of Western Louisiana, on behalf of Bishop Frederick Borsch that released the diocese’s claim to the property.
However, this waiver did not amend the parish bylaws and diocesan canons and even if it did, “the Bishop of the Diocese did not, and does not, have authority to amend any of these instruments,” the judge ruled.
The St James Newport Beach case has been in the California courts since 2004 and has twice been to the Supreme Court in Sacramento. A decision on whether to appeal this ruling has not yet been made by the parish leadership.
The Virginia Supreme Court in The Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church (USA), affirmed a lower court ruling awarding all of the real and personal property of what had been the largest parish in the Diocese of Virginia to the diocese. However it ordered that funds raised by the parish after it had broken with the diocese belong to the parish.
In her decision Justice Cleo Powell held that a “fiduciary relationship” existed between The Falls Church and the national Church. The parish could not acquire an interest in its own property that was adverse to the national Church, she argued, even though the title deeds did not reflect any trust relationship between the parties.
Last week The Falls Church stated they would request a rehearing of their case, noting Judge Powell had erred in deciding the case on the basis of a fiduciary relationship, noting the issue had not been before the court.