Judge rules Episcopal Church owns property of breakaway parishes


LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Three breakaway parishes in the Diocese of Los Angeles cannot keep church buildings or other property, an appeals court has ruled. The June 25 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal overturned a lower court's rulings, deciding the national Episcopal Church and the local diocese own the buildings and property.

"I believe this is a conclusive statement that the property will come back to us," Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno said in a statement. "Now we can get about the business of healing and about the business of being a church. It's been a long ordeal."

Both the Los Angeles Diocese and the national church argued that as a hierarchical body, all properties are owned by the denomination, not the parishes.

Payne & Fears attorney Eric Sohlgren, who represents three Los Angeles congregations, disagrees. He said an appeal to the California Supreme Court is likely.

"This decision puts one division of the appellate court in direct conflict with other California court of appeal decisions that for almost 30 years have rejected the idea that a court must automatically defer to a denomination in church property disputes," Sohgren said in a statement. "Under this ruling, any big church which calls itself hierarchical could try to confiscate the property of a local congregation simply by passing an internal rule. That idea offends basic principles of fairness and property ownership."

In recent years, conservative congregations across the country have been leaving the Episcopal Church—the American branch of the worldwide Anglican community—over its stands on homosexuality, the ordination of women and the inerrancy of Scripture. Much of the fallout was exacerbated by the 2004 ordination of V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay cleric, to the position of bishop in New Hampshire.

The Los Angeles ruling came just days after the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego filed suit against three churches who also broke away from the Episcopal Church, but still retain possession of the church facilities.

Filed June 18, the suit alleges that the parish property belongs to the diocese and that the churches—St. Anne's in Oceanside, St. John's in Fallbrook and Holy Trinity in San Diego—forfeited all rights to the property when they voted to leave the Episcopal Church.

In announcing the suit, San Diego Bishop James Mathes issued a statement to local clergy explaining they were compelled to take action after the defections. When "all efforts to remedy the violation are rebuffed, it is necessary to use the civil courts," the Episcopal News Service reported Mathes as saying.

The three San Diego County congregations named in the suit voted last year to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church while remaining in the facilities.

In a statement released by St. Anne's the Oceanside congregation called the suit "a senseless and intolerant lawsuit against St. Anne's Anglican Church in an attempt to confiscate all of its church property, including the sanctuary, Bibles, hymnals and office files.

"We are amazed at the disregard of the religious and property rights of St. Anne's church members who overwhelmingly voted their conscience to end their affiliation with the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego over a year ago. Missing from the diocese's lawsuit and press release is any confession that the property of St. Anne's is, and always has been, held in the name of St. Anne's. Over many decades, St. Anne's members have given sacrificially to maintain the property and operate the church without any financial support from the diocese."

In the meantime, as the San Diego case progresses, officials at St. Anne's are keeping their mind on their work, reporting that since they affiliated with the Anglican church, the congregation has grown by more than 40 percent, prompting the hiring of new clergy and the planting of two other San Diego churches.