Skip to comments.Court Dismisses Diocese of Los Angeles Lawsuit Against Saint James Parish
Posted on 08/15/2005 5:42:32 PM PDT by sionnsar
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
COURT DISMISSES LAWSUIT AGAINST ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH, NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA
Church to Retain Ownership of Its Property
SANTA ANA, Calif. St. James Anglican Church, Newport Beach, today was vindicated in its fight to prevent the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles from confiscating its property after a judge dismissed the dioceses lawsuit. Judge David C. Velasquez of the Orange County Superior Court ruled that the dioceses lawsuit arose from protected free speech rights on matters of public interest, and therefore could not proceed:
The court finds defendants have made a prima facie showing they are being sued for acts arising from and in furtherance of their publicly expressed disagreement with the [Episcopal] Churchs views concerning the consecration of homosexual clergy, specifically by voting to break ties with the Church,
by amending the parishs articles of incorporation, and submitting a press release announcing the reasons for separation. Such acts arise out of and are in furtherance of the defendants exercise of the right to speak on a matter of Opublic interest.
The lawsuits dismissal means that St. James Church will retain legal possession of its church buildings, property and financial records. It also brings to a close almost a year of uncertainty for the members of St. James Church over the potential loss of a place to worship, their financial contributions and even their hymnals. One year ago today tomorrow, the church disassociated from the diocese and the Episcopal Church USA because of theological differences, which drew international attention because of similar issues facing the Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglican Communion.
It is a great relief to the loyal members of our church to see this lawsuit dismissed and to know that the sanctuary and grounds where we gather every Sunday will remain a safe harbor for us, said Father Praveen Bunyan of St. James Church. We will go forth with a light heart and turn all our attention on the mission that God has given us: to be faithful to Him, to accept His Only Son as our Savior and to spread his Holy Word. The church will continue its ministry as it has since it was founded.
Judge Velasquez ruled on two motions that are favorable to St. James Church. First, he ruled that St. James prevailed on its first anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss the diocese¹s original complaint. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. The statute authorizing this legal defense was designed to prevent civil lawsuits with little merit from being filed by large private interests to deter individuals from exercising their political or legal rights to free speech or to petition the government. St. James attorneys argued that the Diocese of Los Angeles is a wealthy and powerful religious corporation that was trying to stifle these fundamental rights when church members publicly spoke out about their disagreements with the Episcopal Church, including through the act of disaffiliation itself.
Few things are as precious to Americans as the right to free speech and the right to own property. This aggressive and ill-conceived lawsuit by the Diocese of Los Angeles offended both, as it was really aimed at punishing and making an example of St. James Church for publicly disagreeing with the direction of the Episcopal Church, and taking a stand by disaffiliating from it. said Eric C. Sohlgren of Payne & Fears, LLP, Irvine, the lead attorney for St. James Church.
Another court ruling granted a second anti-SLAPP motion brought by St. James to strike down an amended complaint filed by the diocese in May. The judge concluded that the diocese altered its original lawsuit to correct perceived deficiencies brought to light by the first anti-SLAPP motion, but it still had no chance of success.
The court finds that plaintiffs have not established a legally cognizable claim supported by competent evidence, Valesquez wrote. In support of their claims, plaintiffs rely on legal propositions which are not the law in California.
The diocese argued that the California courts must defer to internal church rules, known as canons, in disputes over church property, although that argument was repudiated by California courts decades ago. The judge also rejected the dioceses contention that St. James Church property was being held in express trust for the Episcopal Church:
No evidence has been presented that the parish, its board or its governing documents contain an express commitment to place parish property in trust for the benefit of the [Episcopal] Church, Valesquez wrote.
Another hearing will be held in September to determine the amount of legal fees and costs that St. James will be entitled to recover from the diocese after having prevailed on its anti-SLAPP motions. The court¹s rulings do not affect a countersuit brought by St. James against the Diocese of Los Angeles and Bishop Jon Bruno alleging that the diocese breached a written promise made in 1991 that it would not attempt to claim St. James property. The status of a claim brought by the national Episcopal Church when it intervened in the lawsuit, is uncertain.
On August 16, 2004, the membership of St. James Church voted overwhelmingly to disassociate from the Episcopal Church USA over issues of Biblical orthodoxy and to join the Anglican Province of Uganda in the Diocese of Luweero, which is a member of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The members then voted to amend the churchs Articles of Incorporation to reflect the change, and filed it with the California Secretary of State. The lawsuit filed by the diocese to seize church property referred to their democratic action as a corporate takeover by the church leadership. Volunteer directors at the church were named in the lawsuit, along with the church itself.
The Diocese of Los Angeles and Bishop Jon Bruno could not stop St. James Church from following the traditional teachings of the Anglican Communion, so they tried to intimidate the church and take away its property so the members would have no place to worship, Sohlgren said. It was clearly an attempt to confiscate property that does not legally belong to the Episcopal Church, and now it has failed.
The membership of All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. Davids Church in North Hollywood also disassociated from the Episcopal Church. They have filed similar anti-SLAPP motions that will be heard separately by the court at a later date.
Good News, Indeed!
This is a most amazing legal decision. Extraordinary.
And in the People's Socialist Republic of Kalifornistan, yet.
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