Comments: Connecticut case dismissed by federal court

These parishes are on the right side of the Gospel, but the wrong side of the law. This was a stupid lawsuit that should not have been filed. Rather than waste their time and money on this nonsense, they should make a bold statement for the Gospel and have a big celebration when they hand the keys to these properties over to the Bishop.

Posted by CT at Tuesday, 22 August 2006 at 4:16pm BST

Actually, they are on both the wrong side of the Gospel and the wrong side of American law.

Posted by Kurt at Tuesday, 22 August 2006 at 5:08pm BST

The "right side" is not onesided.

I'm certain everyone is STILL welcome and will be "included" at ALL levels of Church life at the Diocese of Connecticut thanks to the overwhelming loving majority membership and the vigilant and continous guidance of Bishop Smith.

Posted by Leonardo Ricardo at Tuesday, 22 August 2006 at 5:38pm BST

I am certainly glad to see this outcome. Bishop Smith’s quote at the end of the press release was very interesting. As I was reading it, I got the feeling that he was not just directing his comments to schism groups in his diocese. Do you think maybe he was sending a message to schism groups all over North America?

Posted by Wade Bond at Tuesday, 22 August 2006 at 9:18pm BST

I'm sure this decision will be scrutinized closely by church attorneys all over the country. I'm not an attorney, but I usually hear that a decision like this is not necessarily "precedent setting;" but I'm sure there will be a lot of interest in the statements of the limitations of the jurisdiction of the federal courts, and on the confirmation that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church.

Would someone know whether the completion of this in federal courts would still allow for a suit in Connecticut state court?

Also, this has an effect on the submission of the Connecticut 6 to the Panel of Reference. The Panel's last statement was that it could not consider the submission while civil procedures were underway. More to follow with interest.

Posted by Marshall Scott at Tuesday, 22 August 2006 at 11:19pm BST

The dismissal dosn't address any of the purely state court issues in the complaint. Those could be refiled in state court. The federal claims they made were just so laughable that the outcome was quite predictable. I don't think they would fare much better in state court, but for different reasons.

The courts in the US have no role in reviewing the application of canon law. That's an impermissable intereference in church affairs. The CT Six have a nearly impossible task of getting a court to intervene on their behalf.

Posted by ruidh at Wednesday, 23 August 2006 at 4:06am BST

ruidh, thanks for the response.

There have been some state decisions specifically affecting property issues, reflecting both state incorporation laws and the history of the congregation. I was in Detroit in the early '90's when the Diocese of Detroit sued Mariner's Church and lost, both in first jurisdiction and on appeal. It did cost the diocese a lot of money, but it still had a significant effect, even in defeat. There were a number of congregations in that (admittedly liberal) diocese considering separation (even as late as the '90's) over prayer book issues (primarily, although ordination of women was in the background). Even though the diocese lost, the case demonstrated that Mariners' Church has certain characteristics of origin, history, and relationship with the diocese that raised questions about whether the national canon on property ("held in trust for the whole church in the institution of the diocese"). The case also demonstrated that congregations that didn't have those unique characteristics (i.e., all the other possible schismatic congregations) would necessarily be bound by the national canons. So, the diocese lost the battle but won the war: those other congregations could not by suit disassociate the property from the diocese.

We'll have to wait to see what happens in the cases in California, and especially in South Carolina where some sort of "unique characteristic" argument seems to be central.

Posted by Marshall Scott at Wednesday, 23 August 2006 at 2:50pm BST

I'm not a lawyer, but I've tried to read and understand as many of these decisions as I can. And while it's hard to generalize about the law in each of the 50 states -- property and trust law is state law and varies between the states -- I think a few generalizations are available.

1. The party who wants to challenge the status quo has the uphill battle.

2. These kinds of lawsuits are not new. the Reformed Episcopal Church which broke away in the late 19th C. over issues of ceremonialism faced the same kinds of lawsuits where dioceses and bishops attempted to use the courts to enforce canonical decisions depriving priests of their licenses and positions. Then, as now, some suits were sucesssful and some were not.

3. In general, the law surrounding courts passing judgement on canon law are well established and uniform as they derive from the US Constitution. No American court -- state or Federal -- has jurisdiction to determine if a diocese followed its own canons or those of the national church. Generally sopeaking, a bishop can enforce a canonical decision to defrock a priest and declare his position vacant.

4. That ability to enforce canons may or may not extend to property disputes. Here the law of the jurisdiction is crucial. Different states have different criteria and tests to determine if a constructive trust has been established. If the parish has at any time in the past specifically accepted diocesan control of property -- by seeking and obtaining the permission of the ordinary to mortgage the property for example -- that is a strong indication that the parish has accepted some measure of constructive trust. Similarly, courts look to see if the parish has formally submitted to the canons of the parish either through the enacting of bylaws or articles of incorporation referencing their submission to such.

Of course, any parish finding itself in conflict with its diocese needs competent advice on its specific legal situation in the contrext of local laws and not random musings from some random idiot on the internet.

Posted by ruidh at Wednesday, 23 August 2006 at 7:47pm BST

The only cases I know of where Episcopal parishes have successfully left the Episcopal Church with their property without having to pay the diocese for the equity are those recent cases in California. They were successful only because California has a weird law that worked in the parish’s favor. But even those cases may be overturned, because the diocese has appealed them to federal courts. And it is well established that the government has no business interfering in the way we practice our religion, which includes the way we govern ourselves.

Can anyone reference an example outside of California where a civil court ruled that a parish could leave the diocese and take their property without having to pay the diocese for the equity?

Posted by Wade Bond at Wednesday, 23 August 2006 at 10:40pm BST

There are a few older cases where parishes have sucessfully left. Mariner's Church is mentioned above, but they may have been something of a special case. I recall a Kentucky case from a few years ago, but I couldn't find it after an hour of googling last night. Some of the 19th C. cases involving the parishes that later bacame the Reformed Episcopal Church went against the diocese, but that was before the Supreme Court precedents regarding interferance with canon law.

I should make a web page of cases I have found.

Posted by ruidh at Thursday, 24 August 2006 at 5:39pm BST

Yes. That kind of web page would be interesting.

The Kentucky case that I remember included the parish paying the diocese for the equity in the building, and I think the agreement was reached without going to court.

For those of us who are supportive of the Episcopal Church (USA), the good news is that in the vast majority of cases, the laws are on our side when groups try to leave with church property.

Posted by Wade Bond at Monday, 28 August 2006 at 3:36pm BST
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