Wednesday, June 27, 2007

California Court Upholds Episcopal Church's Right To Property of Dissident Parish

In a 77-page opinion filed on Monday, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District held that in a dispute over the ownership of church property of a break-away congregation, a general church has the clear right to enforce a governing instrument that provides for a trust against the property of a local member parish. In Episcopal Church Cases, (CA Ct. App., June 25, 2007) the court said that a long line of state and U.S. Supreme Court decisions require using the "principle of government" or "highest church judicatory" approach in resolving church property disputes. The court rejected the "neutral principles"approach to church property disputes that was taken by the lower court (see prior posting), and that has been taken by a number of other California appellate courts.

The court also rejected arguments by St. James Parish that its free speech and free exercise rights were being violated. The court said that the lawsuit: "is a property dispute -- basically over who controls a particular church building in Newport Beach -- and does not arise out of some desire on the part of the general church to litigate the free exercise rights of the local congregation. They are free to disaffiliate just so long as they do not try to take the parish property with them."

Reporting on the decision, yesterday's Orange County Register points out that at issue was the decision of St. James Parish to split off from the Episcopal Church in a dispute over scriptural doctrine and homosexuality. The Court of Appeals emphasized, however, that the reason for the parish's decision to break away was irrelevant to its decision.

UPDATE: In an unpublished opinion filed the same day, the court relied on its analysis relating to St. James Parish to reach the same result as to two other breakaway parishes-- All Saints in Long Beach, and St. David's in North Hollywood. Episcopal Church Cases II, (CA Ct. App., June 25, 2007). [Thanks to Jeffrey Hassler, via Religionlaw listserv for the lead.]