Skip to comments.Judge: Episcopal diocese must pay legal fees for defecting congregation
Posted on 09/20/2005 9:36:34 AM PDT by PAR35
A Superior Court judge in Orange County, Calif., has ruled that the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles must pay more than $81,000 in legal fees for a congregation that defected from the Episcopal Church (USA).
Judge David C. Valesquez had ruled Aug. 15 that St. James Church owned its property and assets, and dismissed a diocesan lawsuit that claimed the Newport Beach congregation's property and assets belonged to the diocese.
After the September 15 ruling, Praveen Bunyan, pastor of St. James, said the awarding of legal fees is another affirmation that St. James Church was right from the beginning.
"This is a reiteration saying that the lawsuit was wrongfully brought against us," Bunyan told The Daily Pilot in Newport Beach.
The ruling means that the church can apply funds toward "God's mission," Bunyan told the newspaper. "We're glad that we can continue to concentrate on the mission that we believe as a church we are called to do," he said.
Eric Sohlgren, the attorney for the church, expressed skepticism that the diocese will pay the legal fees without first appealing the decision, the newspaper reported.
"I don't know whether they will appeal," Bunyan said. "Of course, we'll continue to fight for what is ours."
After the August 15 ruling stating that the congregation owned its property and assets, the Los Angeles Times reported that J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the six-county diocese, said the denomination will appeal. John R. Shriner, the attorney for the diocese, called the ruling "a grave error," the Times said.
At the time, Bunyan said he was disappointed that the denomination planned to appeal the ruling. "I would wish that the Episcopal Church would say all right . We want to be about God's mission and be about God's work."
Sohlgren charged that the diocese tried to "intimidate the church and take away its property so the members would have no place to worship."
St. James Church, which has property valued at several million dollars, defected from the Episcopal Church in a dispute over the denomination's selection of a bishop after he had left his wife and children to live with his homosexual partner. After leaving the national church, St. James affiliated with the Diocese of Luwero in the Anglican province of Uganda, Africa.
The Episcopal Church claimed that the congregation in leaving had forfeited any right to the buildings and other property, including hymnals.
The Episcopal Church, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), has a constitutional provision that says local congregations hold their property in trust for the denomination. They say those provisions give the denominations' regional bodies the dioceses and presbyteries the right to evict the defectors and claim the property.
But California corporate law, according to a ruling in a Methodist case last year by the 5th Circuit of the California Court of Appeals, allows a local church to revoke the denominationally imposed trusts and retain its property.
Two Korean congregations whose majorities voted to leave the PCUSA Serone Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles and First Presbyterian Church in Torrance are currently involved in civil property disputes.
In a ruling dated Sept. 1, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled against a pivotal argument made by the Presbyterian Church (USA) in its claim to property held by Serone Church, Inc.
Attorneys for Hanmi Presbytery and the PCUSA argued that when Chapter 8 (the "trust clause") was added to the denomination's Book of Order in the 1980s, "an express trust was created in favor of the PCUSA." Serone contested that contention, showing that there is nothing in the congregation's Articles of Incorporation that agrees to place the Serone Church's property in such a trust.
"Cross-Complainants [Hanmi Presbytery and the PCUSA] state no facts showing that Serone Church's Articles of Incorporation show membership in the PCUSA, or that its real property is held in trust in favor of PCUSA," said Judge Theresa Ann Bigelow.
"Cross-Complainants do allege that its Book of Order grants it a trust in Serone Church's property, but this is inadequate. Subdivision (c) (2) of Corporations Code section 1 & 2 does not authorize a general church to create a trust interest for itself in property owned by a local church simply by issuing a rule declaring that such a trust exists."
In the Torrance case, a Superior Court judge has granted access to the property by the minority, but he has not ruled on property ownership.
The Episcopal Church (USA) also is seeking to invoke its property trust clause in two other civil cases All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David's Church in North Hollywood.
The Rev. Cannon David Canon, president of the conservative American Anglican Council, told the Times that Velasquez's ruling saying that St. James owned its property "is a momentous verdict across the U.S. It gives great encouragement to Episcoplians and people of other Christian denominations that hold to the fact that the local congregation that buys the property and buildings does, in fact, own their property." The council has helped Episcopal congregations that leave the denomination.
Velasquez said California courts are not bound by church law under the U.S. Supreme Court's standard of applying "neutral principles of law" to resolve property disputes.
For more than 100 years, the Supreme Court's rule for settling property disputes was to allow the denomination's hierarchy carte blanche to take over property under the control of congregations that disagree with their denomination's leadership. That ruling was made in 1869 in a Presbyterian case titled Watson v. Jones.
In 1979, however, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a Presbyterian case titled Jones v. Wolf, recommended that church property disputes be resolved through neutral principles of law that considered deeds, articles of incorporation and state statutes, as well as church law.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) and other "hierarchal" denominations as both the Episcopal Church (USA) and the PCUSA have been described in civil litigation have objected strenuously to the application of neutral principles. They have also appealed to the First Amendment as a basis for asking the courts not to intervene in property disputes.
Good news ping.
I don't think I've ever seen those words used in that combination before.
Good News for Christians - bad news for the Church of the Apostacy.
It was strange typing it. On the other hand, I would expect it to be a common headline at the ACLU.
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That was one of the funniest, driest exchanges that I can recall
More good news.
This is like pouring salt water on the wounds.
Man..next year's GC is gonna be a pip...
It's excellent news in this case, certainly, but it could be a dangerous precedent if a heterodox congregation decides to resign from the authority of a good and lawful bishop.
I disagree with that one. You are better off without the cancer in the body. Let them have the building and furniture, and tell them to get lost. (Or, more theologically accurately, to stay lost).
Of course, I belong to a denomination where one of the founding principles was that a congregation could leave with its property any time that it wants. We lost a large congregation to liberalism about 3 years ago, but everyone is better off with them where they are now.
I especially liked it when I read the Judge told the Episcopalian denomination that they also needed to pay the local church $81,000 for filing frivolous counter lawsuits against the local church.
About time these pontificating prevaricators get pulled up by the short hairs.
I feel uncomfortable with the idea of churches running to the secular authorities to sort out what are essentially religious quarrels. But I guess there's no alternative. And in this case it was the liberal bishop who brought the lawsuit.
I see your point. As a Catholic, I hate to see other Catholics falling into heresy, but it's better that they leave than that they stay and poison the Church. Indeed, that's been the principle problem in the Catholic Church since Vatican II--that so many people want to be heretics but at the same time want to stay in the Church and leach off of it.
Interestingly, our canons would produce exactly that result. The diocese and province are explicitly prohibited from ownership, except for the amount, if any, loaned to a mission.
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