Editor’s note: On Oct. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
SAN FRANCISCO — The state's high court ruled yesterday that three Southern
California parishes that left the U.S. Episcopal Church over its ordination of
gay ministers cannot retain ownership of their church buildings and
unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that the property
belongs to the Episcopal Church because the parishes agreed to abide by the
mother church's rules, which include specific language about property
St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St.
David's Church in North Hollywood pulled out of the 2.1 million-member national
Episcopal Church in 2004 and sought to retain property ownership.
Each church held deeds in their names to the property. The court ruled that
Episcopal Church canons made it clear the property belonged to the individual
parishes only as long as they remained part of the bigger church.
"When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have
the right to take the church property with it," Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin
wrote for the seven-member court.
The 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire set off a
wide-ranging debate within the church and upset conservative congregations.
Since then, four dioceses and about 100 individual churches have split and set
off bitter religious and legal feuds over church doctrine and division of
An attorney for the U.S. Episcopal Church said that the California Supreme
Court ruling would be influential in other similar property disputes across the
"This was a thorough and conclusive ruling," said Episcopal Church lawyer
Bishop Jon Bruno, head of the 85,000-person Los Angeles Diocese, said he was
"overjoyed" with the ruling and hoped it would prompt reconciliation talks with
the three churches.
"I'm a Christian and I believe there is always the possibility of
reconciliation," Bruno said. "It has been devastating for both sides."
A lawyer for one of the breakaway churches, St. James, said it would continue
to fight for control of the property despite the ruling.
"St. James holds the deed free and clear," attorney Eric Sohlgren said. "The
Episcopal Church hasn't contributed a dime to St. James in 50 years."
Similar legal battles are expected in Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Texas, and
Quincy, Ill., where dioceses recently voted to split from the national
On Dec. 19, 2008, a Virginia judge citing a Civil War-era state law there
ruled in favor of 11 congregations in their split from the main church.
The Episcopal Church is the American body of the Anglican Communion, with
about 77 million members worldwide.