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Breakaway parishes can't keep property, Calif. justices rule

By The Associated Press
01.06.09

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 property.

In a 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 ownership.

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 property.

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 country.

"This was a thorough and conclusive ruling," said Episcopal Church lawyer John Shiner.

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 church.

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.


Previous
Calif. court sides with Episcopal diocese in property dispute
Three parishes that broke away over gay ordination lose their bid to keep control of their buildings. 06.29.07

Related

Court rules Ore. archdiocese, not parishes, owns property

Bankruptcy judge rejects Portland archdiocese's claim that applying federal law instead of church law could violate its religious freedom. 01.03.06

Federal judge: Church, not court, should settle Episcopal dispute

Court dismisses lawsuit brought by six parishes that had sought to break away from Connecticut diocese over bishop's support for election of gay bishop. 08.23.06

Conservative congregations win court case in Va. church dispute
County judge rules that about a dozen churches that split from U.S. Episcopal Church can keep buildings, other property under Virginia law. 12.23.08

High court won't block release of Conn. priest-abuse records
Justices also turn away appeals in several other First Amendment-related cases. 10.05.09

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