Episcopal News Service reports that Appeals court favors Episcopal Church, diocese in Los Angeles property cases.
A California Court of Appeal has ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles in cases where the majority of members of three Episcopal congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church for oversight by bishops in another Anglican province.
The decision, which overturns rulings by a lower court, comes in the first of the recent cases brought to recover Episcopal Church property retained by congregations now calling themselves St. James Anglican Church, Newport Beach; All Saints’ Anglican Church, Long Beach; and St. David’s Anglican Church, North Hollywood. The congregations voted in August 2004 to amend their articles of incorporation, and maintain that they are now part of the Anglican Province of Uganda.
The trial court had ruled in favor of the departing congregations in August 2005. But the Fourth District Court of Appeal, in an exhaustive 77-page review of U.S. Supreme Court and California appellate decisions as well as a pertinent California statute, held that where a hierarchical church — such as the Episcopal Church — has determined that the real and personal property of subordinate bodies must be used and maintained for the benefit of the larger church, the courts in California must respect and enforce that determination.
The Court of Appeal found that a “‘governing instrument’” of the Episcopal Church — its 1979 “trust” Canon I.7(4) — “expressly impresses a trust on the property of a local church corporation” which must be enforced by the courts.
The court held that in these circumstances “the right of the general [i.e., Episcopal] church in this case to enforce a trust on the local parish property is clear” and declined to “bolster the result … by explaining that an alternative rationale [i.e, the “neutral principles” analysis adopted by numerous courts] leads to the same result.”
The press release from the Diocese of Los Angeles can be found here at present, and is reproduced below the fold.
The press release from the disaffected parishes can be found here.
Los Angeles Diocese Press Release
Landmark court decision upholds diocese’s claim to parish property
LOS ANGELES — The California Court of Appeal, in a 77-page landmark decision issued yesterday, unanimously upheld claims by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the national office of The Episcopal Church to the property of three parishes whose leaders and members had left the Episcopal Church in 2004.
Presiding Justice David G. Sills, writing for the Court, concluded “the right of the general church in this case to enforce a trust on the local parish property is clear.”
The Diocese of Los Angeles encompasses the Counties of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Orange, and a portion of Riverside County, under the ecclesiastical authority of its bishop diocesan, the Right Reverend J. Jon Bruno.
Three years ago, three parishes of the Diocese—St. James’ in Newport Beach, St. David’s in North Hollywood, and All Saints’ in Long Beach—severed their relationship with the Episcopal Church and Diocese and placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a conservative Anglican bishop in Uganda. Each parish claimed it was entitled to take parish property away from the Episcopal Church and Diocese.
The Diocese, citing church canons which place all parish property in trust for the Episcopal Church and Diocese, asserted it was entitled to retain the property. Litigation followed.
The Court’s ruling yesterday confirms Bishop Bruno’s conviction that parish property cannot be taken away from the larger church by departing members.
“This has been a long ordeal for the Diocese and its faithful members, but we now have clear judicial recognition that parish property is dedicated forever for the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church,” said the bishop. “While individuals are always free to leave the Episcopal Church and worship however they please, they do not have the right to take parish property with them. We welcome with open arms all persons who desire to be part of the Episcopal ministry, including those persons who chose to leave the Church in 2004.”
John R. Shiner, Chancellor for the Diocese and its attorney in the litigation, called the ruling a “decisive decision” for the Episcopal Church. Shiner, a partner of Holme Roberts & Owen, LLP, noted, “Yesterday’s decision contains the most thorough analysis yet of church property law in California, and should dispel any notion that local congregations of a hierarchical church may leave the larger church and take property with them.”