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Fort Worth wins: The Church of England Newspaper, September 6, 2013 p 6. September 12, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Fort Worth, Property Litigation, The Episcopal Church.
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The Texas Supreme Court has nullified the Dennis Canon, holding the Episcopal Church’s property rules have no legal effect in the state. It ruled that church property disputes are to be governed by the “neutral principles of law” doctrine rather than ecclesiastical law.

The decision marks the climax of the five year legal battle between the national church and Diocese of Fort Worth – effectively ruling that a parish may quit its diocese and keep its property if it has clear title to its buildings, and that a diocese may withdraw from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

On 30 August 2013 the Court handed down its decisions in two closely watched cases — No. 11-0265Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, et al. v. The Episcopal Church, et al.; and No. 11-0332Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas.

In the Fort Worth case, the Court by a vote of 5 to 4 to overturn a lower court decision that awarded the property of the Diocese of Fort Worth to the national Episcopal Church and its local allies.  It held the trial court erred in deferring to the opinion of the Episcopal Church over the arguments of the diocese.

It remanded the case to the trial court, instructing it to apply a “neutral principles of law” analysis to the issues and determine whether the Corporation of the Diocese of Fort Worth had complied with state law when it withdrew from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. The dissenting votes in the Fort Worth case did not dispute the majority’s finding and accept the arguments of the national church, but held the hearing before the Supreme Court was premature and the matter should have been litigated at the court of appeal first.

In the Masterson case, the court voted 7 to 2 to reverse a court of appeal decision which held the Diocese of Northwest Texas was the owner of the property of the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo, Texas.  The appeals court had held that the national church’s property canon – known colloquially as the Dennis Canon — required the court to award the parish property to the diocese under the theory that the state must defer to ecclesiastical law.

The Supreme Court rejected this finding, ruling that “neutral principles of law” must govern the courts, where it must look to property deeds and corporate charters to determine who owns property in Texas. The Masterson ruling nullified in Texas the Dennis Canon – a 1979 rule which states parish property is held in trust for the diocese and national church.

The trial court was directed to review the dispute between the parish and diocese and look to the deeds to determine ownership.

The provisional Bishop of Fort Worth, the Rt. Rev. Rayford High, Jr., — the bishop of the loyalist faction — released a statement lamenting the decision. “For now, we must all don the mantle of patience and forbearance,” as their lawyers reviewed the decision.

“I ask for your prayers and urge us all to stay focused on the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in the days ahead,” he said.

The Rt. Rev. Jack L. Iker, Bishop of Fort Worth rejoiced in the decision. He told the diocese the Supreme Court had ruled the trial court had erred in its decision and “must now reconsider the merits of the case” based on neutral principles.  “While today’s opinions are not final victory, they indicate that a final victory is only a matter of time.”

Bishop Iker thanked the clergy and lay members of the diocese for “your faithfulness and support during this trying period of time. … Patience and prayers are still required, but in the end we will prevail.”

Canon lawyer Alan Halley – who has served as counsel for some of the breakaway dioceses in their battles with the national church – observed: “Texas law will control the issue of who were the trustees of the Fort Worth diocesan corporation on the relevant dates when crucial votes were taken. And that should bode very well for Bishop Iker’s chances on remand.”

“Likewise, the issues of title are to be resolved by examining the various deeds under Texas secular law — and that, too, should work in Bishop Iker’s favor. Title to all of the parish properties is held by the diocesan corporation. Thus if Bishop Iker’s trustees are the proper trustees in office, the property will follow the corporation.”

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