By George Conger, Religious Intelligence
The California Supreme Court gave mixed signals on how it might rule on the Episcopal Church’s lawsuit against a Los Angeles parish that had quit the church for another province of the Anglican Communion.
In questions to the attorney for a parish that had quit the Diocese of Los Angeles for the Province of Uganda, the justices of the Court appeared to defer to church canons that place parish property in trust for the diocese and national church. However, in questions to the attorneys for the Diocese and national church, the justices indicated a desire to avoid entanglement in doctrinal disputes, and look solely to the underlying legal documents — the deeds to the property — that were at issue.
In oral arguments held on Oct 8 in Palm Desert, California, attorneys for St James Church in Newport Beach, and the Diocese of Los Angeles and the national church, presented their legal arguments to the court and responded to questions from the judges for over an hour.
Following the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, the congregation of St James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California voted to quit the diocese and affiliate with the Church of Uganda.
St James held title to its parish property in its name, and rejected a request from the diocese to vacate the property. The diocese argued that under the “Dennis Canon” passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1979, all parish property is held in trust for the diocese and national church — notwithstanding the terms of the title deed.
A trial court ruled in favour of St James’ holding that under “neutral principles of law,” the court must first look to the underlying title deeds to determine ownership, and not to canon law. In 1871 the US Supreme Court in the case of Watson v Jones held that in disputes over church doctrine, the courts must defer to the decision of the highest “church authority.” In 1979 in Jones v Wolf the Supreme Court distinguished property disputes from doctrinal disputes, stating that states may use the “neutral principles of law” approach in determining church property disputes and need not defer to the hierarchy when the underlying title deeds favor the parish.
While most states have held to the Watson v Jones approach to church disputes, deferring to the hierarchy as a matter of course, California has generally followed the Jones v Wolf view and in recent years the courts have used the same principles of law in resolving church property disputes as they would secular property disputes.
When the Los Angeles appellate court reversed the trial court, finding in favour of the diocese, its decision ran counter to other appellate court rulings, and placed the matter before the Supreme Court after the parish appealed.
In questioning of the attorney for the parish, Eric Sohlgren, the justices appeared to favour changing California’s rules of resolving church disputes to conform to those practiced in other states.
"When St James Parish was founded, didn’t they agree to be bound by the canons and constitution of the higher church?" Associate Justice Ming Chin asked. "And don’t those canons make clear that if the lesser church leaves the greater church, the property stays with the greater church?
"Haven’t most, if not all, those cases gone against you" in other states, Justice Chin asked.
Associate Justice Carol Corrigan pressed Mr Sohlgren on language found in St James’ articles of incorporation, which “forever bound” the parish to the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church. The attorney responded that these documents spoke to spiritual and doctrinal matters, not property issues — a point that did not appear to have been well received by the other judges. Questioned on this point, James Shiner, attorney for the diocese, told the court the “canons of the church trump the deed” to the property. By joining the diocese, the “title becomes irrelevant.”
Associate Justice Marvin Baxter asked Heather Anderson, attorney for the national church, what protections a parish would have, if it sought to enter the Episcopal Church with its property.
How could it safeguard its property from the reach of the diocese? Ms Anderson responded that if they were not willing to surrender their property, “they cannot join. The Episcopal Church requires that all property be held in trust for the church."
In other words, Justice Corrigan said, you are free to join, "but here are our rules."
In response to the diocese’s presentation, Justice Baxter asked Mr. Shiner whether the diocese could “confiscate the property of the parish if it engaged a gay minister,” under the Dennis Canon. Mr Shiner answered no, then yes, saying the canons on property ownership were more clearly defined than issues of doctrine.
The seven-member court also pressed the diocese and national church over the question of neutral principles of law. “You take a look at the documents” and decide on that alone, one justice said.
“Why roll back to the Civil War?” Justice Corrigan asked Ms Anderson in support of the neutral principles approach. “Why should we hearken back to a different time, when religion had a different” place in society?
“Why not treat everyone equally?” Justice Corrigan said, apparently agreeing with Mr Sohlgren’s contention that California’s neutral principles approach was the “modern” or enlightened way of resolving the dispute.
A ruling in Episcopal Church Cases, S155094, is due within 90 days.