California court ruling favors Episcopal Church and Diocese of San Joaquin

By Pat McCaughan, July 25, 2009 [Episcopal News Service] After months of deliberation, a California Superior Court judge in Fresno has rejected a breakaway group’s attempts to remove the Diocese of San Joaquin from the Episcopal Church and affirmed Bishop Jerry Lamb as the leader of the diocese.

“It is beyond dispute that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church,” concluded Judge Adolfo M. Corona when issuing his July 21 ruling. He rejected such arguments by defendants, including former bishop John-David Schofield, that the hierarchical nature of the church is something to be determined on a “case by case basis.”

Corona also ruled void the attempts by the breakaway group, led by Schofield, to amend the diocesan constitution and canons to disaffiliate the diocese from the Episcopal Church and to reaffiliate with another province. An overwhelming majority of the diocese’s congregations voted to realign with the Argentina-based Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in December 2007 but attempted to retain diocesan property and assets.

“If the Constitution of the Diocese incorporates and accedes to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, which require accession, then the Constitution of the Diocese cannot be amended to remove such language,” Corona wrote in the 21-page decision.

Bishop Jerry Lamb hailed the ruling, the full text of which may be found here.

“I am very, very pleased with this decision,” said Lamb, who was elected Provisional Bishop of San Joaquin at a March 29, 2008 special convention.

“The judge was extraordinarily clear on the fact that we are the Episcopal diocese, that I am the Episcopal bishop and that we control all of the properties that are now part of The Episcopal Church or were part of The Episcopal Church before the separation occurred nearly two years ago,” Lamb said in a telephone interview late Friday.

He said the ruling is a first step toward regaining disputed property worth “millions of dollars” including the diocesan offices in Fresno, at least 30 church facilities, and the diocesan camp and conference center.

“We are going to be making efforts to have people sit down and start to talk to us about how to go forward,” Lamb said. “More importantly, we’re talking about people who want to worship as Episcopalians,” he added.

Lamb retired as bishop of the Sacramento-based Diocese of Northern California in 2007 and served as an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Nevada prior to being elected Provisional Bishop of San Joaquin.

The diocesan website currently lists 20 continuing Episcopal congregations, including St. Paul’s, Modesto which several years ago affiliated with the Anglican Mission in North America. The property was returned to the diocese July 1; Lamb said he currently maintains diocesan offices at St. Paul’s but hopes to eventually return the diocesan headquarters to the Fresno location occupied by the disaffiliated group.

Diocesan chancellor Mike Glass said he received news of the ruling late July 23. “The court confirmed the integrity of our church’s polity, and unequivocally rejected the attempts of the defendants to remove the diocese from the Episcopal Church,” he said in a telephone interview July 24.

“With these issues clearly resolved in favor of the church and the diocese, it is the hope of the diocese we can expedite the recovery of assets of the diocese to further its mission and work.”

The office of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in New York released a statement, noting that Corona ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of San Joaquin on all issues presented to it and that the ruling resolved most of the legal issues in litigation involving the identity and property of the diocese. 

The court also concluded that “former Bishop John-David Schofield is no longer the bishop and has no claim to any of the corporate offices,” according to the statement.

The court also ruled that the continuing Diocese of San Joaquin is “not a new organization” created Schofield attempted to remove the diocese from the church, but that the diocese “is the older organization from which (Schofield and the other) defendants removed themselves.”

Bishop Edwin [Ted] Gulick, diocesan bishop of Kentucky and provisional bishop of Fort Worth, also applauded the decision.
 
“This California decision joins other courts in Texas and other states in affirming the legal positions asserted by the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, its Diocesan Corporation, and the Episcopal Church in litigation filed on April 21, 2009 in the 141st District Court in Fort Worth against former bishop Jack Iker and others who left the Episcopal Church but still claim the right to exercise authority on behalf of the diocese and to control diocesan property,” according to a statement released by the diocese..

Attempts to reach Schofield late Friday were unsuccessful.

The Episcopal Church is a constituent member of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which encompasses more than 80 million worshippers in 44 regional and national member churches in over 160 countries across the globe.

— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Provinces VII and VIII and the House of Bishops. She is based in Los Angeles.

St. James Anglican formally petitions the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn decision

(Poster’s Comment:  The Supreme Court may decide not to hear this matter….)

Written by BabyBlueAnglican on Jun-24-09 5:39pm

via e-mail:

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – June 24, 2009 – St. James Anglican Church, which is at the center of a nationally publicized church property dispute with The Episcopal Church, today will file a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. St. James is asking the Court to overturn a prior decision of the California Supreme Court, which conferred a special power on certain religious denominations to take property they do not own simply by passing an internal “rule.” The petition asks the Supreme Court to decide whether, under the U.S. Constitution, certain religious denominations can disregard the normal rules of property ownership that apply to everyone else.

Dr. John Eastman, a nationally recognized constitutional law scholar, has joined the legal team to pursue the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. A response from the Court regarding the St. James petition can be expected as early as October 2009. A decision could be reached as early as mid-2010.

“We will be arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that the California Supreme Court’s interpretation of state law has violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Even though it says Congress, that Amendment has been interpreted as applicable to the states as well.” Eastman said. “The California Supreme Court has given a preference to certain kinds of churches that claim to be hierarchical, that other churches and non-religious associations are not entitled to, and that violates the establishment clause. We will also be arguing that denying the local church community their ability to organize and hold title to their own building and conduct their religious services in a manner they see fit, this California decision violates their right to the free exercise of religion,” Eastman added.

Under longstanding law, no one can unilaterally impose a trust over someone else’s property without their permission. Yet, in the decision titled Episcopal Church Cases, the California Supreme Court ruled that certain denominations – those that claim to be a “superior religious body or general church” – can unilaterally impose a trust on the property of spiritually affiliated but separately incorporated local churches, resulting in the local church forfeiting its property if it ever chooses to leave the denomination. St. James will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that this preferential treatment for certain denominations violates the U.S. Constitution.

The constitutional issues St. James is raising before the U.S. Supreme Court go far beyond the Episcopal Church. Every local church, temple, synagogue, parish, spiritual center, congregation or religious group which owns its own property through a religious corporation, and has some affiliation with a larger religious group, is at risk of losing its own property under the California Supreme Court’s ruling. As a result, religious freedom is suppressed, as those who have sacrificed to build their local religious communities are now at risk of having their properties taken based on some past, current or future spiritual affiliation. A United States Supreme Court decision in favor of St. James would benefit local church property owners throughout the country because it would allow them the ability to freely exercise their religion without risk of losing their property.

While petitions for review with the U.S. Supreme Court are never assured, there are compelling arguments for the Justices to grant this petition, including these facts:

· Dozens of church property cases are percolating in the court system, lacking clear constitutional direction.

· States are in conflict regarding the handling of church property cases.

· These issues have garnered widespread national attention and involve important questions of federal constitutional law.

The people of St. James Church have owned, and sacrificed to build and acquire their church properties for many decades without any financial support from the Episcopal Church. St. James Church never agreed to relinquish its property to the Episcopal Church upon a change of religious affiliation, and has consistently maintained that it has the right to use and possess its own property.

Even as St. James seeks a place on the Supreme Court calendar, the church’s legal battle has returned to the Orange County Superior Court. “While we are surprised that the California Supreme Court would prefer certain religions over others when it comes to property ownership, the battle in this case is far from over,” said Eric C. Sohlgren, lead attorney and spokesperson for St. James. “The case has already returned to the Orange County Superior Court. Because St. James had an early victory in 2005 by legally attacking the Episcopal allegations, we now look forward to presenting evidence and additional legal arguments on behalf of St. James. For example, St. James has brought a complaint against the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles based on a 1991 written promise that it would not claim a trust over the property of St. James on 32nd Street in Newport Beach. We had hoped Episcopal leaders would abide by this promise, but they sued St. James and its volunteer directors anyway.”

Click here for a copy of the writ of certiorari which will be filed today with the U.S. Supreme Court: http://steadfastinfaith.org/content/st-james-ussc-petition

For more information, please visit the website: http://www.steadfastinfaith.org

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