Skip to comments.Judge: Breakaway Episcopal congregations can keep property
Posted on 12/07/2006 6:08:19 PM PST by sionnsar
SANTA ANA - An Orange County judge dismissed Thursday the last of the lawsuits seeking the return of property from three churches that split from the Episcopal Church to place themselves under a conservative Ugandan bishop.
Orange County Superior Court Judge David Velasquez dismissed suits by the Protestant Episcopal Church USA against St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints in Long Beach and St. David's in North Hollywood.
Velasquez had dismissed those claims in October, but allowed lawyers to amend the complaints.
However, in a ruling issued Thursday, Velasquez found that the national church "has not added anything legally material" to the original complaints.
Velasquez dismissed suits by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles against the churches last year.
In his rulings, Velasquez said that neither the local diocese nor the national church has a rightful claim on land, buildings or items such as hymnals and prayer books used in worship by the congregations of the three churches.
The three churches cited differences in doctrinal issues and the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire as the impetus to bolt from Protestant Episcopal Church USA and affiliate with the world-wide Anglican Communion, as the church is known in other countries.
Thursday's hearing was attended by attorneys for St. James, St. David's and All Saints, while attorneys for the national church, as they have during previous hearing, participated via teleconference.
John Shiner, who represents the local diocese, also participated via teleconference. He expressed his disagreement with the rulings.
Shiner could not be reached later for immediate comment, but said earlier that the rulings will be appealed.
"We are very confident in our position regarding all three churches," Shiner said.
Outside the courtroom, St. James attorney Eric Sohlgren said this was a milestone ruling.
"Today was really the last gasp of this court case that was first filed in 2004," Sohlgren said. "Of course we're very pleased with the results, and as before, All Saints, St. James and St. David's can get on with the work of the church."
"The court has ruled repeatedly that in California, an organization cannot confiscate someone's property simply by passing an internal rule. It would be like belonging to an Auto Club and the Auto Club saying that because you're a member, the Auto Club gets to confiscate your car. It's just not the law in California and the court has been very consistent with that."
Attorneys for the diocese argued that the churches voluntarily agreed to comply with church "canons" that hold that all property belongs to the diocese.
However, Velasquez has consistently ruled that the "deeds to the local church properties are in the name of the local church corporations."
Sohlgren said one aspect of the case that is still alive is "that last year, St. James Church in Newport Beach did sue the Diocese of Los Angeles on the theory that some years ago, the Diocese of Los Angeles promised that they would never bring any kind of claim like this against the property."
"The complaint asserts sort of a breach of contract kind of theory," he said.
The church claims it was damaged by the claim and is entitled to get damages back.
"We're looking for monetary damages and costs that the church incurred in fighting off these lawsuits and other related expenses," Sohlgren said.
A status conference will be held on that case in about 60 days, Sohlgrensaid.
I wonder how this will affect cases in other dioceses. I bet it makes no difference. It galls me but I think the Diocese and the Nat Church have the law on their side.
Come on, there HAVE to be some lawyers out there who can help with this.
I'm no lawyer, and I don't play one on TV. It seems to me that the church was built and maintained with the funds tithed and donated by the parishoners. The parishoners didn't leave the Episcopal church. The Episcopal Church left them, and created their own belief system. They are Episcopal in name only.
I personaly think you could make a case that the dioceses and national church have been acting in worse than bad faith for 40 years or more -- ever since Bp Pike wasn't deposed. But I can see trying to haul that through the courts ... A lot of lawyers would get rich.
YEA! GOOD FOR THEM!
St. James Newport Beach may be one of the most wealthy parishes, and may have some very high calibre lawyers for members.
There is probably some serious money involved here.
Dear Mad Dawg,
I'd imagine that you'd have to look at the facts of each case. I'm not sure that the courts will any longer defer to the canons of a church organization. Certainly, the courts haven't deferred to the canons of the Catholic Church during diocesan bankruptcy hearings.
I imagine where a parish can show that the parish was truly built by the money and under the authority of the congregation, it may be hard for dioceses to seize them. Where the diocese can show that it initiated and maintained authority of a parish continuously, I imagine it will be difficult for congregations to keep the property.
I don't know much about Episcopal polity and organization, but I know a little more about Catholic stuff.
In the Catholic Church, you generally just can't start your own Catholic Church. By Canon Law, a Catholic parish is erected by the ordinary of the see. Any physical property accumulated is done so by the power and authority of the pastor, who is solely answerable to the ordinary of the see.
Legally, even where parishes are separately-incorporated bodies, they are initiated by the bishop, and they are governed by episcopally-controlled devices of governance.
Here, the case is usually strong that the congregation has no ownership in the parish.
However, sometimes there have been "independent" "Catholic" parishes created without the authority of the bishop, but then for whatever reason, try to affiliate with the local diocese. Should the ordinary of the diocese and the parish come to terms, the parish then becomes a Catholic parish of the diocese. But if the governing legal documents of the parish aren't changed to legally hand over legal control of the assets of the parish, I think that they'd remain in the hands of the congregation.
Just my two cents.
14 Nov San Diego diocese
Breakaway church in Fallbrook wins
VISTA A judge has ruled that the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego did not prove its case against a breakaway congregation in Fallbrook that aligned itself with a foreign bishop and kept the building.
The lawsuit argued that the leaders of what is now St. John's Anglican Church are not the legitimate officers because they are no longer Episcopalians. It wanted the new officers elected among members who did not break away to be recognized as having authority over the property.
But in a preliminary ruling last Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Stern disagreed. She finalized the ruling the next day and mailed it to attorneys.
The Rev. Donald Kroeger, rector of St. John's Anglican, called the ruling a great relief. But the property fight may not be over. Now we must fall back and reassess what we're going to do, said Charles Dick, the diocese's attorney.
And yesterday, the seventh parish broke away from the San Diego diocese with two priests and the majority of the members.
They will be with the Anglican accociation
I am confused. If the members of the church wants to break away, why do you want to stop them? If the national organization wants to go pro-gay, member churches should leave them for going against Bible teachings.
I don't know much about TEC Canon law, but in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations are required to adopt the "Model Constitution" which is tinkered with every two years at churchwide assemblies. These amendments are automatically presumed be adopted by congregations thanks to an amendment made about a decade ago that bypassed the normal congregational ratification process. If a congregation failed to affirm that amendment the normal process remains in place.
The rulings vary by state. California is very sympathetic to the departing churches, Pennsylvania is very hostile, and the others range in between.
Until the diocese files for bankruptcy, and then the Catholic Bishop holds forth that the property has always belonged to the local parish.
"It galls me but I think the Diocese and the Nat Church have the law on their side."
That may be true in many, or even most, places. But it is quite clearly stated in the article that that is NOT the case under California law.
I just have an academic interest - how churches and secular polities get together and the notions of ecclesiology are expressed in secular law.
"Until the diocese files for bankruptcy, and then the Catholic Bishop holds forth that the property has always belonged to the local parish."
The property does belong to the local parish, at least in Catholic Canon Law. However, the parish doesn't belong to the congregants. The parish is a constituent part of the Church. The only real "owner" of the Church is God.
Neither, therefore, does the parish belong to the bishop (at least, it's not supposed to). The parish is its own juridical "person" in Church law. The bishop has ultimate control over the disposition of the parish and its assets, but doesn't own those assets. Neither, really, does the diocese.
Rather, the diocese and the bishop are ultimately responsible for the care of the parish and the proper administration of the parish, but do not have a completely free hand in what they may do with it.
Even if the diocese takes the civil legal form of a corporation, and even though it has some attributes of a business, ultimately, it isn't a business. Whether separately incorporated or not, individual parishes do not exist to provide profit and income streams to "headquarters." Parishes are normally established for the benefit of Catholic people in a given territory, to provide for Catholic life for the Catholic people therein.
My reading of what the courts have done is that they've said that if a diocese sets up its civil legal arrangements to parallel the effect it desires in Church law, the courts may respect that. Thus, by incorporating each individual parish, with the bishop having ultimate, but not immediate control of each parish, a diocese may be able to shield the assets of parishes from judgments against the diocese.
But where the Church doesn't try to use civil legal arrangements to parallel the intended Church legal arrangements, all bets are off.
I'm not sure that that doesn't violate the protections of the First Amendment, at least a little bit, but there it is.
Maybe, maybe not. Over and above all else, remember that there's still a question about whether the Dennis Canon was properly passed.
The National Church could care less if they break away, but they don't want them to get to keep the church.
OOOOH! I idn't know that! Can you give me the reader's digest version?
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