Thinking Anglicans

Connecticut case dismissed by federal court

Updated again Thursday morning

The United States District Court has dismissed the case brought against the Diocese of Connecticut by the “Connecticut Six”. The full ruling can be read as a PDF file, which is available here.

A press release from the Diocese says:

A federal lawsuit filed against Connecticut Episcopal Bishop Andrew D. Smith was dismissed by a judge in a ruling yesterday, August 21.

The civil suit was filed last September by clergy and lay people from six Episcopal parishes (among 176) in Connecticut, against Bishop Smith and others, including the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church USA. The lawsuit accused them of depriving the six plaintiff parishes of their rights, under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and sought to have a state law that provided for corporate organization of the Episcopal Church declared unconstitutional.

The plaintiff parishes included lay members from St. Paul’s, Darien; Bishop Seabury, Groton; Christ Church, Watertown; Trinity, Bristol; Christ & the Epiphany, East Haven; and St. John’s, Bristol, and clergy from five of those parishes. All six had been in dispute with the Bishop and Diocese over Episcopal authority and jurisdiction. The conflict started in late 2003 with theological differences. As an accommodation to those differences, Bishop Smith offered Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) in early 2004 but it was not accepted by any of the six parishes. The suit was filed after the actions of the bishop in July 2005, when he intervened at St. John’s in Bristol, inhibiting the priest and installing a priest-in-charge and an administrator.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Janet B. Arterton concluded that the bishop acted under canon law, and that the claims by the plaintiffs lacked an essential element justifying a federal suit. Several other claims filed under Connecticut tort law were also dismissed by the federal judge.

Bishop Andrew D. Smith, who is currently out of the state, was reached late yesterday and notified of the court’s decision. In a statement of response he said:

“I am gratified by the decision of Judge Arterton that it is inappropriate to seek federal intervention in a matter of church life and governance. Non-interference by civil authorities in religious matters is a constitutional foundation of our nation and I trust that those members of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut who appealed to the courts will recognize the significance of this ruling and will seek to live in communion with their Bishop and this Church.”

Update
There is also an ENS release: Federal judge dismisses Connecticut lawsuit. This contains a lot more detail and adds the information that:

The six congregations also appealed to the Panel of Reference established by the Archbishop of Canterbury in response to a request of the Primates at Dromantine, Northern Ireland, in February 2005. The Archbishop of Canterbury withdrew the reference to the Panel in May 2006 until the civil case was resolved, citing the decision of the Panel not to consider references where civil cases are in process.

Update Wednesday
The American Anglican Council has issued a “Connecticut Six press release”: Connecticut Six Clarify Status of Civil Litigation. Now also on the CT Six site.

There are also two local newspaper reports: Lawsuit Against Bishop Dismissed and Federal judge dismisses lawsuit over gay Episcopal priest battle.

Update Thursday
The Church of England Newspaper has this report by George Conger Connecticut court case against Bishop thrown out.

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Wade BondruidhMarshall ScottLeonardo RicardoKurt Recent comment authors
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CT
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CT

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.

Kurt
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Kurt

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

Leonardo Ricardo
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Leonardo Ricardo

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.

Wade Bond
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Wade Bond

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?

Marshall Scott
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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… Read more »

ruidh
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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.

Marshall Scott
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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… Read more »

ruidh
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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… Read more »

Wade Bond
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Wade Bond

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… Read more »

ruidh
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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.

Wade Bond
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Wade Bond

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.